Editorial: Commissioners can’t solve problems without civil discourse

The district has work to do that can’t be accomplished in the kind of unruly, antagonistic meetings that are now, sadly, the norm for VIFR.

A decision by Vashon Island Fire & Rescue (VIFR) commissioners to increase minimum staffing levels for full-time firefighters hasn’t come out of the blue.

Staffing levels at VIFR have, in recent months, been a simmering issue, repeatedly coming up at commissioner meetings.

​​At the Nov. 24, 2021 meeting, commissioner Camille Staczek detailed the concern, saying that on 40 occasions during the past five months, volunteers and off-duty firefighters had been called back to the station, because all on-duty responders were already in the field.

At the time, Chief Charles Krimmert disagreed with Staczek’s assertion that these staffing “callbacks” might be used as a metric to indicate that VIFR is understaffed.

However, then-commissioner Brigitte Schran-Brown — who also works in the district as a volunteer EMT — agreed with Staczek and went further, casting the board’s only no vote on the district’s proposed levy and budget, saying that it needed to include a more robust plan to hire more full-time firefighters.

For newly elected commissioner John Simonds, the phrase, “dangerous staffing levels,” has become both a catchphrase and a battle cry.

At the commissioners’ Jan. 26 meeting — his first as a commissioner — Simonds made a motion for VIFR to add 10 full-time firefighter/EMT positions, while ending its part-time emergency responder program, with current part-timers first in line for the new full-time positions.

The change, Simonds said, would cost VIFR $1 million a year, which would all come from currently existing revenue — with more than half the amount being savings from current overtime costs and reallocation from the district’s line item for its part-time paid firefighter program. Krimmert, at the time, called Simond’s math into question, and the motion was defeated by a four-to-one vote.

On March 5, Simonds took to the four-way stop in Vashon’s town center to plead his case, holding a sign that read “Fire Rescue Dangerous Understaffing,” and distributing a four-page handout to passersby that outlined his motion and budget plan to add more staffing.

At the March 30 meeting, the staffing issue returned to a boil, as the board considered a report and motion by Staczek and commissioner Pam King to immediately increase minimum staffing for full-time firefighters/EMTs.

Their motion was supported by a strongly worded letter from the firefighters’ union, detailing how with only nine career staff currently serving the district, the situation had become untenable.

This motion passed but left open how the staffing increase would be achieved.

One thing is clear: there is a serious problem to be solved in the district, and we hope that the current board of commissioners and chief, working with the union, are able to solve it in a methodical, calm and respectful way.

But that will be impossible if public meetings continue to be as rancorous as the ones we have recently witnessed.

During the March 30 Zoom meeting, McCollough requested on at least two occasions that Simonds’ microphone be turned off when he spoke at length without being recognized by her, and at another point, the microphones for both Krimmert and Simonds were cut, as they were engaged in an interruptive back-and-forth conversation.

At another point, McCullough refused to allow firefighter union president Ben Davidson to speak, even after Simonds had said he would like to hear from Davidson. However, McCollough did recognize Rebecca Nason, secretary and finance manager for the district, who asked to contribute her perspective regarding district finances.

At that point, Simonds interrupted her comments, asking if it was appropriate for Nason to speak, given that Davidson had been denied the opportunity. Simonds spoke dismissively of Nason’s role, saying she was “just the district secretary.”

The meeting’s combative tone continued until its end, to the point that it was cringe-inducing to watch. Anger, sarcasm, exasperation and lecturing are commonplace tools of some meeting participants, including Chief Krimmert.

This, too, isn’t a new thing.

On March 2, Andy Johnson, the chair of VIFR’s board of commissioners, resigned from his elected post, citing a decline in civil discourse on the board and saying he hoped the board could return to the “goals of collaboration and respect” that he “feared were being left behind.”

Here at The Beachcomber, we fear that too. We expect fire commissioners and VIFR staff to follow the code of first responders everywhere, remaining professional at all times, calm under pressure, and respectful and unrattled during a crisis.

It’s possible to disagree with colleagues without losing decorum and crossing boundaries. We expect our elected officials and highly paid public servants to be capable of that kind of non-toxic communication.

The district has work to do that can’t be accomplished in the kind of unruly, antagonistic meetings that are now, sadly, the norm for VIFR.