Fire board hears Islanders' opinions on court ruling

The Vashon Island Fire & Rescue board, weighing an appeal on a court decision that could leave the taxpayer on the hook for $750,000, got more than an hour of advice last week when it turned to the community for input.

A cross-section of the community turned out for the Tuesday night meeting, including firefighters who urged the department to fight the verdict and others who said the department should acknowledge its mistakes and put this chapter behind it.

“I want to cut our losses,” said Islander Hilary Emmer. “I don’t think we would gain anything by appealing. ... It feels like a gamble, and I’m not a gambling person.”

The comments offered what board member David Hoffman called “food for thought” as commissioners weigh the pros and cons of what they admit is a weighty decision.

If the five-member commission opts to accept the estimated $1 million King County Superior Court judgment against the fire department, it — and the taxpayers — will pay around $750,000 to Lanora Hackett, a female volunteer firefighter who, according to Judge Cheryl Carey’s Feb. 2 oral decision, was wrongly denied a paid position because of her gender.

If the fire department appeals and loses, interest at a rate of 12 percent a year and additional lawyers’ fees will be tacked on to the original judgment, which has yet to be finalized, adding more than $200,000 to the total amount, board chair Neal Philip said at the meeting.

The nearly 20 attendees at the board’s meeting were vocal on either side of the issue and shared anecdotes and personal histories as well as their sometimes forceful opinions.

Some who supported an appeal noted that winning it could clear the fire department’s name and restore its reputation, as well as save it $1 million.

Two women who work in the department — a volunteer and a paid employee — stood up for Vashon Island Fire & Rescue and said they’d never observed or experienced discrimination in the workplace.

“I would like to put this behind us, because it’s a dark cloud hanging over us, but I cannot accept the judge’s decision that this happened,” said Battalion Chief Cari Coll. “The judge got it wrong. ... I would support an appeal because I don’t think we got a fair trial, and I don’t think the case has any validity at all.”

Some voiced concerns that an appeal could hurt morale, while others said the judgment against the department has already dampened the spirits of some paid employees at the district, and, if won, an appeal could prove them innocent of wrongdoing.

“The whole department, men and women, have done a great job through this process of dealing with this,” said paramedic Mark Brownell. “I’m real proud. And I think they’ll hold on through an appeal process.”

Others opposed the appeal because they wanted the department to acknowledge what they believed was gender discrimination in the department.

“This was something that happened in the past, and I think we’re needing to pay for it,” said Lynann Politte. “I’m not sure there’s a benefit to dragging this out.”

Vashon Island Fire & Rescue was found culpable on two counts, said Karen du Four des Champs — gender bias and retaliation. Even if the department won on one count, it could lose on the other, she noted.

She added that she appreciated the department’s quick response to the judgment — department staff underwent discrimination and workplace sensitivity training shortly after the judge made her decision.

Volunteer firefighter Armen Yousoufian added that, during the appeal process, the judgment against the fire department could even increase. He, and several others, voiced concern that interest would be added to the original judgment if the department lost an appeal.

Fire department officials are still on the fence and won’t make a decision until the department receives the judge’s final judgment.

“The department strongly disagrees with the court’s verdict and does not believe gender was a significant factor in the hiring decision,” said Philip at the April 28 meeting. “If we did go ahead and pay the judgment, the benefit would be that this saga would end.”

It’s likely that insurance will cover less than a third of the roughly $1 million decision, according to Philip. While it will cover the emotional damages awarded, the insurance will not pay for the wages awarded to Hackett, and will only cover a portion of the lawyers’ fees for the defense and for the plaintiff. A judgment this large could easily wipe out Vashon Island Fire & Rescue’s reserve fund, department staff said.

Should the board appeal the judge’s decision, it will likely take two years before another decision is made, Philip said, and he said he wouldn’t wager a guess at the department’s probability of success.

If the fire department wins its appeal and is found to have acted lawfully in its treatment of the female volunteer firefighter, he noted, the department will have saved hundreds of thousands of dollars.

“It could be a victory that vindicates the department,” Philip said.

The fire board will not decide whether to appeal until the formal decision is handed down, Philip said, a judgment that could come any day or in several weeks. The department has 30 days after the final judgment is made to file an appeal, he said.

“If I myself personally think that discrimination didn’t have anything to do with her not getting the job, do we still pay the decision?” asked board member Hoffman at the meeting. “The dollar’s huge.”

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