by Richard Uhlhorn
Chelan County Fire District No. 7 will have an assistant chief in 2022. At a special meeting on Wednesday, December 22, to specifically discuss whether or not to hire an assistant chief, the commissioners first heard from the public.
The issue has been whether or not to hire an assistant chief who would be an exempt employee on salary versus placing a Captain in the position when Chief Brandon Asher was unavailable.
The administration and Commissioner Russ Jones have argued that hiring an assistant chief will save the department in the long run instead of paying overtime to a career staff individual who is a union member.
Resident Robert Wentland told the commissioners that the voters had voted in November for no reduction in staffing or other areas of the fire service. “Fifty seven plus percent of the voters are expecting no reduction in services. They expect that to be honored,” said Wentland.
Chairman Phil Moller replied that the district won’t see any money to hire personnel until April. “As far as reducing staff, I believe there are other ways to provide without hiring an assistant chief.” He stated that he is fiscally conservative and if the district can save money he will always do that.
However, Ann Wright, another resident, said an assistant chief is valuable tot he district. “It’s a whole job,” she said. She accused the commission of always fighting the department… always being antagonistic. She specifically called out Commissioner Karyl Oules who says her constituents are always complaining. “Who are they,” she asked. “Are they five people or 100. They never come to a meeting to be heard.” She stated that Oules is not representing the people or the department.
Commissioner Russ Jones opened the commission discussion by asking if Moller and Oules are opposed to hiring an assistant chief? Moller replied that he wasn’t opposed to filling that position. Oules stated that the commission and administration needs to look into the issue further. “It doesn’t need to be done in a week,” she said. “There have got to be options available.”
Jones remarked that an email was sent out detailing the differences between an assistant chief versus having a career union firefighter in the position. “We are going to pay a lot of overtime,” said Jones. “We budgeted for this. I don’t know what kind of message you are looking for.”
Chief Brandon Asher asked what the other options are? “There is a ton of work.” He added that he spent 358 hours a year extra while he held the position. “The bargaining unit would have to be brought in to negotiate the position.”
Asher also commented that he just spent eight days in Mexico on vacation. “There was no question of who was in charge… it was Chief Donnell.”
Moller asked if an assistant chief would also be the training officer. Asher replied that training would be a big part of his job along with meetings and 911 responses. Moller asked if the assistant chief would go on combat calls? Asher replied that he would and that an assistant chief is an absolute necessity.
A firefighter in the audience stated that someone needs to fill that role. “If it is one of us, our salary increases.”
A volunteer firefighter remarked that a training position carries a huge liability. He added that since he has been here he has gained huge respect for Chief Asher.
Jones asked once again. “Why wouldn’t we fill that position?” Moller replied it’s not filling the position, he just wants to be fiscally responsible. “I’ve never not wanted that position… I just wanted to save a little money and get the job done.”
Jones said, “What I’m hearing is you’re ok with an exempt position… just not an assistant chief. Oules said she isn’t opposed to an assistant chief, but just wants a little more time to investigate alternatives.
Asher replied to the commissioners that the district is fiscally responsible. “I think we’ve proven that.”
Chief Mark Donnell stated that the district had the luxury to have Asher on a grant. “We abused that grant,” he said. “It’s an amazing amount of work.” He added that if they decide to go with a union career officer, they will have to negotiate the terms with the union. “Right now we are looking at four months. If we wait, it will be May 1 and then we are into the fire season.”
Jones made the motion to post the position for an assistant chief. It took Moller about 10 seconds of thinking before he seconded the motion. Moller and Jones voted to post the position and Oules voted No.
Resident Larry Peabody said, “I believe the board had made the right decision.”