Point Roberts fire commissioner race rekindles emotions of fire chief's firing

THE BELLINGHAM HERALDOctober 26, 2013 

2013 elections

MCT

POINT ROBERTS - Taking a glance at the local ballot this November, it would be easy to overlook a pair of fire commissioner races in Point Roberts.

But if you've picked up a copy of the All Point Bulletin newspaper lately, you know how the board of Whatcom County Fire District 5 has stoked locals' emotions.

Last year, more than a hundred people out of the town of 1,300 crammed into the fire station on Benson Road to protest the board's sudden firing of Chief Nick Kiniski, a retired pro wrestler, owner of the Reef Tavern, and generally popular personality on Point Bob. One board member resigned amid the public backlash that followed.

Fearing a lawsuit, the two remaining commissioners kept mum, or at best cryptic, about the reasons Kiniski lost his job - officially saying he'd been fired for "no cause."

In response to a Herald questionnaire this month, Stan Riffle, 69, who is seeking re-election, hinted that tensions between the chief and the board reached a breaking point because Kiniski wouldn't do things by the book.

"Our patience wore thin with several issues," Riffle wrote. "Directives from the board were not being followed. A less than popular decision was made. Our fire department just had to move on to provide for the future needs of our community."

However, critics of the board saw evidence of personal vendettas. Riffle's challenger, Robert Dean, 47, is running for public office for the first time. He's among those critics.

"When faced with challenging decisions," Dean wrote, "I remove the people and personalities from the equation and deal with the facts."

He believes the facts show the board broke the public trust - and wasted thousands of taxpayer dollars on paramedic training - when they fired Kiniski without cause.

Dean believes the fire chief should live on Point Roberts; Riffle disagrees, and last year the board promoted Chris Carleton, a former assistant chief and paramedic who is a resident of the mainland. He splits time between Point Roberts and Ferndale's Fire District 7. Because of the Point's quaint geography, the new chief must cross the border four times in his commute.

The two candidates for the other position - Craig Carter and incumbent Jeff Wilmot - didn't reply to the same questionnaire. In the past Wilmot has cast himself as an outsider, like Dean. Accounts in the All Point Bulletin, the community newspaper, suggest that Carter sides more strongly with Riffle and Chief Carleton.

Here are some questionnaire answers from Riffle and Dean.

Question. What important issues have been buried by the controversies of the past year or so? How should those issues be addressed?

Dean: (A.) Long-term thinking in terms of equipment, training and personnel. I have attended meetings for some time now and it seems that everything becomes an emergency. The department needs to construct long-term plans, available to the public, and perhaps even with public input, and then a three- or five-year plan to implement the plans. (B.) Transparency, transparency, and even more transparency. By refusing to allow the public to have any input when making department decisions, how can we be sure we are serving the public and addressing their concerns?

Riffle: There are no issues that have been "buried." Our new chief has unearthed all problems and issues leaving everything on the forefront. Our fire chief is an excellent manager who keeps us informed with all issues. If it is not solved in day-to-day operations or in a regular meeting, then it appears for our further discussion and review in the next regular meeting.

Q. Has the district managed its money well? In what ways could taxpayer money be better spent?

Dean: No, from what I have seen it hasn't. Purchasing a device that could find a body in a field during the night isn't a priority for the Point. Yet, we have one now.

The latest example is the dealing with the septic system issue. There are two contractors on the Point that are licensed and bonded and have already performed work on the system. Yet the $39,500 contract was awarded to a contractor from Blaine without allowing these two to make a bid or even know that the work needed to be done. Commonly, because of the dollar amount, you are not "required" to go through the bid process to acquire materials or services. We would be better served if our purchases were put through the bid process rather than just go with the first figure we get.

Riffle: With the new permanent levy in place we are doing extremely well, operating within our approved budget. Constant monthly reviews of our approved budget are being made by the commissioners and our Chief. We are currently under budget for the year. Our capital fund is increasing measurably each year for facilities repairs and major equipment replacement.

Q. Has the current board been sufficiently transparent with the public?

Dean: No, they haven't. Over a year ago, when the chief was fired for no cause, there were over 100 people who attended the next commissioners' meeting. They asked numerous questions and none of them were answered. We were told at that meeting that we would be informed about the firing of the chief in the future. This has yet to happen, and the commissioners responsible, Riffle & (Bill) Muersing, refuse to respond to questions asked at the public meetings.

Riffle: The board has made great improvements in transparency to the public. We strive to continue in the effort to let the community know what we are doing and why decisions are made. We will be expanding our minutes to give a better description of what led up to motions and decisions. Our fire department has a website (WCFD5.com) that posts events, meetings, agendas, minutes and more fire department information. The mid-year budget is posted when it becomes available in late July, and our full-year budget is posted as well for public review through the year.

Q. If elected, what would be your top three priorities?

Dean: (A.) Rewrite the conditions of the fire chief's contract and require that Point Roberts is their primary residence and that they be a certified paramedic. (B.) Work to ensure that we have paramedic coverage when the chief isn't available. (C.) Change the number of commissioners from three to five. Right now, quorums, meaning two members, by law, aren't allowed to speak to each other, except at a public meeting. This needs to change.

Riffle: Of great importance to me is the acquisition of a wildland firetruck to be prepared for possible forest fires within our inaccessible, large forested areas on Point Roberts. Secondly, I would like some greater harmony in our decisions with all three commissioners agreeing/disagreeing on all issues to better support our exceptional fire chief. Thirdly, the remodel/expansion of sleeping quarters, toilets, showers and kitchen will be necessary to accommodate the large number of weekend and weekday volunteers.

Q. Sum up your platform in a sentence.

Dean: A statement needs to be made that the current actions of Commissioner Riffle: reducing paramedic coverage, excluding the public, and spending money like we have an endless amount of it, is wrong and needs to stop.

Riffle: I deal in facts .... Clear thinking and fiscal responsibility guide all my decisions to achieve our goal to have the best volunteer fire department in Whatcom County.

MORE CANDIDATE INFORMATION

To see responses to various issues from these and other candidates on the Nov. 5 ballot, go to our online voter guide.

This is one in a series of articles on races in the November general election. Other articles are at BellinghamHerald.com/elections.

Reach Caleb Hutton at 360-715-2276 or caleb.hutton@bellinghamherald.com. Read his Dispatcher Blog at bellinghamherald.com/dispatcher-blog or follow him on Twitter at @bhamcrime.

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