Chief Lipe promises to work to alter fire district’s culture

Vowing that his “commitment will be relentless,” Vashon Island Fire & Rescue Chief Hank Lipe said he plans to change the agency’s culture and transform the small fire department into a model free of discrimination.

Lipe, who took over the fire department in August, has crafted a resolution that he planned to bring to the five-member board of commissioners Tuesday night (too late for The Beachcomber’s deadline) reaffirming the agency’s policy of mutual respect in the work place and calling on it to accept “zero tolerance for any form of discrimination.”

“I want to see a cultural change in this organization,” he said in a brief interview. “I want to achieve what it says in this resolution — that VIFR is a model organization ... that ensures no unlawful discrimination in recruitment, selection, assignment, retention, training or general treatment of any member of the district.”

A recent verdict by a King County Superior Court judge “aired some dirty laundry,” he added. “But it’s also a golden opportunity. It’s no better time to make change. There’s no doubt in my mind. My commitment will be relentless.”

Lipe’s comments came a few days after Judge Cheryl Carey ruled that volunteer firefighter Lanora Hackett was wrongly denied a job in the department because of her gender and experienced a culture of harassment top administrators did nothing to address. The judge awarded Hackett, a former insurance broker and the mother of two, $150,000 and six years’ worth of pay. Hackett’s lawyer said she also expects her legal fees to be covered.

Lipe, who held an executive session with the commission Thursday night, declined to comment on the case, Hackett’s allegations or the judge’s decision. In fact, when asked if his determination to change the culture means the culture up until now has been troubled, he answered, “I’m telling you what I’m going to be doing. I wasn’t here. My clock started on Aug. 18.”

At the same time, he said, the agency needs to take “the high ground.”

“The board’s saying, ‘We’re not going to tolerate this stuff.’ We hope to send a strong message to the community ... that the district is changing. ... We’re not just going to talk the talk. We’re going to walk the walk.”

The resolution, which he said he expected would pass unanimously Tuesday night, calls on every employee in the agency to be “personally committed to and responsible for fair and equal treatment of all district personnel” and directs the chief “to take prompt, appropriate and effective measures ... to ensure personal accountability.”

Lipe also said he plans to bring in an expert on employee relations to work with him on an action plan that he hopes to bring to the commissioners later this month. Janice Corbin, who headed human resources at the Seattle Police Department and is now a partner at Sound Employment Solutions, will play a lead role in drafting the plan, he said.

“My objective is to improve the human relations side of this organization,” Lipe said.

Neal Philip, who chairs the commission, said he supports the resolution and believes Lipe has what it takes to make it a meaningful document.

“A resolution is just words. The important thing is backing it up with action. The chief is fully prepared to do that,” he said.

The lesson of the lawsuit, Philip added, is for the administration to step up.

“The critical part is somebody willing ... when an issue comes up to take appropriate measures,” Philip said. “To me, that is what the judge in the Hackett lawsuit said we did wrong. We didn’t have the appropriate response.”

At the same time, he said, the commission is carefully considering whether it will appeal the judge’s decision. Philip, a lawyer who used to handle appeals at a Seattle law firm, said such decisions are complex and need to be based on a number of factors, from whether an appeal is winnable to the impact it might have on staff morale.

What’s more, he said, the department can respect the judge’s ruling and still find reason to appeal it. Indeed, because of the public dollars the judgment will entail, the commission could decide it needs to appeal for the sake of taxpayers, he said.

“If there are grounds to appeal, we need to appeal,” Philip said. “But we don’t want to make the decision lightly.”

The agency has a couple of months before it has to make a decision on the appeal, according to Mike Bolasina, the Seattle lawyer who represented VIFR in the lawsuit.

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