GRAHAM, WA — Monday, January 9, 2017, at the Graham Fire District commissioners meeting, it was revealed that the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF) Local 726, which represents the fire fighters in Graham (also Central Pierce and Orting) had prepared a list of grievances against the Fire Chief of District 21, Ryan Baskett. Local 726 stated in the grievances they had 97% agreement within the ranks of their Local in Graham giving the Fire Chief a vote of no-confidence. This action by the union is an attempt to have Chief Baskett removed by the Commissioners of the district.
Prior to this action by the union, a number of significant events have taken place in District 21 that citizens need to be more fully aware for a good perspective.
Based on information provided by former and current fire commissioners in Central Pierce and Graham, this is not the first fire chief that local 726 has undergone an effort to have removed, it is the fifth. Central Pierce and the City of Puyallup also had turnover due to actions by Local 726. Central Pierce temporarily rehired retired Chief Jack Andren as a temporary replacement to give them time to conduct a search for a replacement. Such a large fire district as Central Pierce it is more difficult to find a qualified replacement. This month, Don Olson assumed the position as Chief, leaving his former post in Vancouver, Washington.
There have been attempts on at least two occasions (possibly more) in the past to hold talks regarding a merger between Central Pierce and Graham Fire Districts. These have fallen through on both occasions. The fact that the same Union Local 726 covers both of those plus the Orting Valley Fire District is a curious fact that may play into a larger plan that is not currently disclosed. Central Pierce has an additional levy called a fire benefit charge that taxpayers do not pay in Graham.
In 2013, long time Graham commissioner Verne Pierson was replaced by Russ Barstow. Commissioner Barstow is a fire fighter in Thurston County.
In 2015, Adam Rosenlund, Captain at District 6 and a member of Local 726, ran for Fire Commissioner against long time Commissioner Bob Skaggs. Running a well-advertised campaign, with the support of his union brothers, he managed to oust the veteran commissioner.
In 2016, an issue was placed on the ballot to change the number of commissioners in Graham from 3 to 5. The issues passed and in December 2 new commissioners were appointed. Verne Pierson and Bob Skaggs both tried to apply, but said the guidelines written for the positions prevented them from being qualified for the new positions.
In December 2016, the new commissioners were sworn in. They are Gina Blanchard-Reed who is Client Services Director at Care Net Pregnancy & Family Services, and Ryan Portmann, a police officer and former member to the Graham Fire District Citizens Advisory Group.
The only remaining long-term member of the commission is Gerald (Gerry) Gustafson. In December and January, Commissioner Gustafson was out of town. He did call in to the meetings.
At the first meeting for the new commissioners in December, word came out that the union Local 726 was going to present grievances against Chief Baskett. Those grievances were brought to the meeting on January 9, 2017. Word leaked out through some local community organization regarding this information and vote of no-confidence and the community turned out in force.
When the January 9 meeting commenced at 7 p.m., there was a line of fire fighters around the back and sides of the meeting room. They walked in silently together. There were another 25 to 30 people in the room which appeared to be in support of the Chief. Commissioner Gustafson called in and the meeting was opened with an agenda change to place all public comments at the start of the meeting.
Former Commissioner Verne Pierson rose first in support of the Chief Baskett whom he helped select as Fire Chief. Pierson was followed by Dale Kelly and Eric Welch of the Graham Business Association. Next Former commissioner Bob Skaggs spoke, followed by a local pastor, John Marshall and Terry Hurd from the Frederickson Clover Creek Community Council, and Judson Forks from the 723 Networking and Joe Rishlee (sp?). No one from the Local 726 spoke, they stood silently in the back of the room.
Then Joe Quinn, attorney for Dist. 21, rose and spoke to the question everyone was asking, what is the complaint and who has the letter. Apparently, only Commissioner Barstow had a copy of the complaint. The Commissioners went into executive session for about 20 minutes to review the document with their attorney. When they returned, they voted to hire an independent investigator to look into the allegations. Following that, they distributed copies to members of the audience and read the document out loud into the record.
The document listing the issues from Local 726 is linked in a PDF format to this article. The list includes injury rates, levy issues, staffing levels, training, vehicle replacement plans, failure to hold discussions with labor, procedures when issuing layoff notices, and more. It is 4 pages long.
The Post discussed the previous confrontations between Local 726 and Fire Chiefs in Puyallup and Central Pierce with a District 6 commissioner and a former District 21 commissioner. They were both quick to mention the Union President’s style, comparing it to an old traditional union boss with intent of getting his way. For instance, many of the complaints note lack of communication. However, it was also noted that Karns has a knack for making himself scarce so these communications and negotiations are not easy to follow through. In fact, he did not appear at the meeting of the District 6, Graham Commissioners when the complaint letter was delivered January 9.
In the meeting January 9, public in attendance likened it to a whole lot of issues being thrown at a wall to see which will stick. Of course, those comments were from people in the community who are very appreciative of Chief Basket’s open public style and willingness to get out to local meetings and participate with the schools and community. Former Commissioner Pierson said Chief Baskett was one of the best businessmen they ever had running the Graham District and that he was doing an outstanding job.
Eric Welch from the Graham Business Association has been working on a local board with Chief Baskett and noted he has an impeccable moral compass.
Dale Kelly noted he worked with Chief Baskett for years and he is passionate about the community.
Bob Skaggs, former Graham Commissioner rose saying he fully supports Chief Baskett.
So there is a great deal of support in the community for the work Chief Ryan Basket has done while holding the reins of a fire district that hasn’t always passed its levies but still has managed to serve the community.
Yes, Graham has had to lay off firefighters in recent years and it is understandable the union would not be pleased that cutbacks were necessary. There are lots of really great professional fire fighters in the district who do an excellent job with the resources they have. They also work hard on community projects outside their regular shifts and participate in local organizations, schools and fairs.
The community can only hope that the independent investigator takes a hard look at what is going on and sees through gamesmanship, rhetoric and positioning. Graham needs a recommendation the commissioners they can rely upon to continue to provide the best fire district for those they are there to serve, the voting public.
The bottom line here, once all is spoken and investigated, is that Graham voters are very scrutinizing group. How this all takes place could have a long term effect on levies and bonds well into the future. The heavy handed method may not be the best ticket to gaining what the union seeks in the long run. Needs can be addressed if everyone is willing to work cooperatively.
Monday, January 23 is the next Fire Commissioners meeting at station 94, 7 p.m. The address is 23014 70th Ave East, Graham, WA 98338.
Dist. 21 Fire Elected Commissioners
Adam Rosenlund firstname.lastname@example.org
Gerry Gustafson email@example.com
Russell Barstow firstname.lastname@example.org
2 New Fire Commissioners Appointed on 12/6/2016
Ryan Portmann email@example.com
Gina Blanchard-Reed firstname.lastname@example.org