Fire union votes no confidence in assistant chief

Vashon Island Fire & Rescue (VIFR) has launched an investigation into allegations against Assistant Chief George Brown after the local firefighters’ union issued a vote of no confidence in him.

In a letter to VIFR’s board signed by Steve Palmer, the president of the International Association of Firefighters Local 4189, and Leslie Pohl, the union’s vice president, the two wrote that Brown’s “actions, words and behavior had fostered a work environment which continues to be contentious, demoralizing, demeaning and displays a notable lack of leadership.”

VIFR Chief Hank Lipe declined to be interviewed about the situation, calling the matter a personnel issue, but emailed a statement to The Beachcomber saying he didn’t know the “substance of any allegations against the Assistant Chief.”

“To date my assessment of George Brown’s performance and conduct, based on what I know, has been very good,” he said.

Brown, in an interview, said he was shocked at the vote of no confidence and didn’t agree with the union’s assessment of his performance. The assistant chief of operations said he was hired to make changes within the department, an agency with both paid and volunteer responders, and “change is difficult for everyone involved,” he said.

“It hurt. Obviously on a personal level, it hurt,” Brown said. “Personnel matters should be handled in-house. I’m disappointed they brought it to this stage.”

Lipe said he had retained an outside investigator to find out the “factual allegations, to look into them, and to report back to me regarding their merit.”

“After I get the investigator’s report, I will decide what action to take,” he said.

Meanwhile, the VIFR board was scheduled to discuss the matter in an executive session closed to the public on Tuesday evening after press deadline.

Brown, 50, was hired in 2009 after a long career as a captain at the fire department in Pullman, Wash., and four years as Deputy Chief of Training at the department in Clarkston, Wash.

While some board members declined to comment in detail on union’s recent vote, calling it a personnel issue, three board members did say they have been pleased with Brown’s performance and they were happy that he has implemented changes that the board requested.

“I think George has done a great job for the department,” said board member Neal Philip. “He’s really helped the chief in turning things around.”

Palmer, who presented the letter about the vote at last Tuesday’s regular board meeting, said the 23-member union’s vote, taken last month, was overwhelmingly no confidence. In an interview, Palmer declined to give the tally, saying it was done by secret ballot, but said that union members requested the vote earlier this year, and a petition to the officers to hold a vote was signed by all 20 regular members except one. Union members include the department’s 17 firefighter/paramedics and firefighter/EMTs, the facilities director, maintenance supervisor and several chiefs who work directly under Brown.

At Tuesday’s meeting, which was also attended by about a half-dozen union members, Palmer said the vote took place only after members complained repeatedly about Brown’s behavior to Lipe, gave him poor evaluations and tried to address their concerns through their own meetings with Brown.

“We basically feel like we have no further resort,” Palmer told the board.

In an interview, Palmer elaborated on the union’s complaints, saying he felt Brown was a poor manager and an ineffective leader, keeps a schedule that takes him off-island much of the time and is sometimes disrespectful and aggressive, making inappropriate and even obscene comments to those under him. He said Brown was highly critical of VIFR’s program from the time he started and implemented changes in its operations without collaborating with members first.

Pohl, in an interview, echoed some of Palmer’s concerns, and said she’s been frustrated that Brown has kept a schedule where he usually works two weeks straight on Vashon then spends one week in Lewiston, Idaho, where his family still lives. She said union members thought the schedule would last a year or two while Brown transitioned to living full-time  on Vashon.

“He tries to do a lot of it over the phone, but some of it falls through his hands,” she said.

Pohl added that she believes Brown has been disrespectful to her and other women in the department.

“It’s clear he doesn’t respect women in the fire service,” she said.

Mark Brownell, a firefighter/paramedic at VIFR for seven years and the Battalion Chief of Emergency Medical Services, said he has had similar concerns about Brown for years and said he has seemed unwilling to make changes when approached with the union’s concerns.

“I like him as a person. I just think he’s not willing to change or not prepared to manage this particular group of employees,” Brownell said.

Brownell, along with Palmer and Pohl, called the vote of no confidence the union’s last-ditch effort at making their concerns known at the department.

“We’re suggesting this is a colossal problem and we need help,” he said. “Overlooking it is no longer acceptable.”

All three union members said the group, until now, has been careful to not publicly comment on their unhappiness with Brown, fearing for the department’s reputation. About a half-dozen years ago, internal issues at VIFR, a high-profile lawsuit and a high turnover rate in the chief position cast a negative light on the department. Union members say Lipe, who came on in 2009, has made positive changes at the department and worked to restore its reputation, something they say may once again be compromised by the public vote of no confidence in Brown.

“We’re really discouraged we had to get to this level,” Pohl said. “This is not something we wanted to do by any means.”

Brown, however, said he flat-out disagreed with many of the union member’s claims and said he thought he’d been effective at making changes that Lipe and the fire board asked for. Under his watch, Brown said, the department has improved its volunteer response system, raised volunteer training standards, worked to improve the VIRF’s response abilities and response times and created greater accountability within the department.

Brown said his unique schedule was approved by Lipe and that he was almost always available by phone while at his other home in Idaho and did work while off-island. He said he planned to move full-time to Vashon this fall, and informed the board of his intention to do so last year.

When asked about obscene or inappropriate comments, Brown again denied any wrongdoing, saying he didn’t know of any instances where he’d offended someone at the department.

“If someone construed something out of context, I’ve got to know about it to fix it,” he said.

If he offended someone, “I would apologize,” he added.

In 2010, union members say they filed a dozen grievances concerning Brown, all of which were resolved without going to arbitration.

Union members cite the grievances over changes in the department as an example of their early concerns with Brown’s leadership.

Brown, however, characterized the grievances as routine, saying they resulted from disagreements over the interpretation of the union contract.

The Beachcomber filed a public disclosure request on Thursday to obtain documents related to the grievances, but as of Monday, VIFR had not responded to the request. Under state law, organizations have five business days to respond to such requests.

The newspaper also filed a request to obtain copies of Brown’s performance evaluations. Lipe responded to the request Monday, saying he believed the evaluations were public information, and copies would be provided to the paper by next Monday.

Two commissioners, however, said they had seen internal evaluations of Brown’s performance and didn’t have great concerns.

Commissioner Dave Hoffmann said he was surprised about the union’s vote of no confidence, saying it “kind of all of the sudden came out of the blue” and he didn’t know the specifics of the union’s claims.

“I’ve been very happy with George’s performance. I think he’s doing a great job,” Hoffmann said. “Things that we’ve asked him to do he worked really hard on getting them accomplished for us.”

Candy McCullough, who worked under Brown as a volunteer until she joined the board last year, said she’d heard a few minor complaints about Brown, but overall was pleased with his performance, even commenting that he bragged about the union members frequently at board meetings and seemed very available by phone when he traveled to Idaho.

“I see him working hard. … A lot of things that he doesn’t follow up on or finish are probably because he has too many things on his plate,” she said.

Deborah Brown, a longtime VIFR volunteer who hasn’t actively responded in recent years but has worked with Brown in other settings, said she was shocked to hear about the union’s vote. She called Brown upbeat, reliable and clear about his expectations. She said she liked the changes she’d seen in the volunteer system, although she noted she wasn’t actively responding. She said she had even considered creating a volunteer petition in support of Brown, but decided it wasn’t needed.

“My dealings with him have all been very positive,” she said.

Several other VIFR volunteers did not return phone calls from The Beachcomber or declined to comment on the record.

Lipe said he expected the investigation, which is being carried out by a private consulting firm based in Seattle that specializes in internal investigations, to be completed by the end of the month.

Palmer, the union president, said on Tuesday that union members were pleased that Lipe and the board appeared to be taking their vote seriously.

“The members of the Local welcome the opportunity to participate in a process that will lead VIFR back to the path that Chief Lipe set us on five years ago,” he said.

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