Update:  Orcas fire levy vote clouded by fire chief contract questions - Salish Current
March 11, 2024
Update:  Orcas fire levy vote clouded by fire chief contract questions
Minor Lile

Questions about a contract approved by a past board of Orcas Island Fire and Rescue commissioners with department chief Holly vanSchaick are in front of the current board at the same time it is placing a levy proposal before voters in April. (Toby Cooper / Salish Current ©)

March 11, 2024
Update:  Orcas fire levy vote clouded by fire chief contract questions
Minor Lile

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Updated March 15, 2024

After overwhelmingly defeating two levies earlier in 2023, Orcas Island voters in November elected three new commissioners to the five-member Orcas Island Fire and Rescue District board. The new board is placing a third levy before the voters in April — and at the same time is contending with whether the department’s fire chief was legally hired by the previous commission.

In mid-January, the commission voted 3–2 to hire the Seattle-based Pacifica Legal Group to review Fire Chief Holly vanSchaick’s employment agreement and hiring process. vanSchaick was appointed as interim chief following the resignation of her predecessor, Scott Williams, in June 2023 and became permanent chief in August. 

20-page memorandum from Pacifica released after a Feb. 26 executive session discusses the legality of vanSchaick’s hiring and the employment agreement from several different perspectives:

  • Did the process comply with the Open Public Meetings Act (OPMA)?
  • Did the previous commissioners have sufficient standing to agree to a contract that extended beyond the November 2023 election?
  • Were certain elements of the agreement legally permissible under Washington state law?

Pacifica said that while the process may not have been conducted in full accordance with the OPMA, any violations that did occur are probably insufficient to overturn the hiring process or the employment agreement. 

In Pacifica’s opinion, any violation of the OPMA could be resolved by taking a new vote after a public meeting.

Regarding the legality of the employment agreement, Pacifica cites three issues and concludes that it is likely the agreement would be found to be invalid if it were legally contested.

  • Four of the five commissioners of the previous commission were up for election in November 2023 and may not have had sufficient standing to bind a future commission to their decision to agree to a five-year contract with vanSchaick. 
  • The employment agreement  delegates “full responsibility” for a wide range of responsibilities to the chief without defining what was meant by “full responsibility.” Use of the term raises the possibility that the commission delegated discretionary powers for which it must legally retain sole authority. 
  • The employment agreement provides that a unanimous vote of the commission would be required to terminate the employment agreement without due cause and a supermajority of four commissioners would be required to terminate the agreement if there were due cause. Pacifica said that, while these are questionable provisions to include in an employment agreement without having prior rules or policies in place, a fire district could bind itself to requiring a supermajority vote for certain decisions, including the threshold for terminating an otherwise binding contract.

Pacifica concludes that by saying if the employment agreement were found to be legal, any amendment to ensure its validity would likely need the agreement of the commission and the fire chief.

What’s next?

There is general agreement that if the process of resolving the issues that have been raised is  contentious, it is likely to have a negative impact on the department and the prospects for gaining voter approval of the operations levy in April. According to commissioner Tim Fuller, “this could get to be a lot bigger than people might have anticipated.”

Commissioner Randy Gaylord, who initiated the motion that led to the Pacifica review, told the Salish Current at the end of last month that “the path forward is not particularly clear” and that he was listening to islanders in order “to identify  the best course forward.” Gaylord said he was sure the commission would be anxious to hear from the chief.

Commission chair Brian Ehrmantraut said that, while the commission has not yet agreed on a process or a time for addressing this topic, he hopes that “we can work in a collegial way’ to address the outstanding issues. 

Fuller shared a letter to the commission sent by fire district volunteer and practicing attorney Claire Palmer who does not support the consultant’s findings but concluded by writing, “I implore the board to work with the chief to revise the employment agreement as needed, and ratify by vote … any such amendments according to the process laid out in the Pacifica memo and required by law. [Ed.: Updated March 15, 2024, to correct representation of Palmer’s comments.]

Asked whether she would be willing to discuss revising specific elements of the employment agreement, vanSchaick said, “If they (the commission) bring me something, I will consider it. Up to this point that hasn’t happened. Instead, they went straight to the big guns and [hired Pacifica].” 

Meanwhile, an outreach committee composed of vanSchaick, Fuller and commissioner Jim Biddick has been  preparing materials and scheduling community meetings in advance of the April vote on the proposed levy. 

Three informational meetings have been scheduled: March 23 at the Olga Community Center; 10 a.m. March 26 at Station 21 at 6 p.m.; and April 6 at Deer Harbor Station 24 at 10 a.m.

— Reported by Minor Lile

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