An elected commissioner of North Whatcom Fire and Rescue is suing his own fire district in small claims court over $1,000 in personal gear that went missing.
Meanwhile, the district’s fire chief questions whether the commissioner, Dean Berkeley, is even eligible to serve, in light of a statement he made at a city council hearing in July in White Rock, a border city in British Columbia just north of Blaine. At the hearing Berkeley introduced himself as a North Whatcom fire commissioner, and discussed how tighter borders have affected international firefighter relations since Sept. 11, 2001.
“My residence is on Russell Avenue,” a street in central White Rock, Berkeley told the council. “So I live here, but I work in Washington state. So this is my community.”
State law says fire commissioners must reside in the district they serve. North Whatcom Fire Chief William Pernett played a video of the hearing at a public meeting to address Berkeley’s residency and the lawsuit Wednesday afternoon, Sept. 28, in a Bellingham fire hall filled with dozens of district staff.
Berkeley did not show up to the meeting. Reached by a reporter later in the day, he said short notice prevented him from being there in person, but he tried to call in to attend telephonically. He added he didn’t receive any response to the text messages he sent the chief and a commissioner before the 1 p.m. meeting. Therefore he claims the meeting was held illegally. He was not informed, he said, that the agenda item “Information on Commissioner Residency Question” referred to him.
His statement in White Rock about a residence on Russell Avenue, Berkeley said, was a “Freudian slip.” Berkeley has dual citizenship and grew up in Canada, but he emphatically told a reporter he has lived in the United States since 1994, with his wife and children. His kids attend school in Blaine, he added, and he files taxes as a U.S. resident. He owns a house on Fisherman’s Bend Lane, on the outskirts of Blaine. He runs a business that built decorative light poles for the Seattle Seahawks’ stadium and the city of White Rock.
His family roots in White Rock date to the 1890s. A pavilion at the Peace Arch Hospital, on Russell Avenue, is named after a Berkeley. He said he stays in White Rock a few days a month to care for his ill elderly father.
Berkeley was elected to the North Whatcom board of fire commissioners in late 2013 by a vote of 3,808 to 3,777 over opponent Roger Hawley.
Prior to that he served as a volunteer firefighter for North Whatcom from 2009 to 2012, according to the fire chief. He bought his own gear, asserting the equipment issued to him was substandard. His boots leaked, for example, he said. He kept the leaky boots, he said, as evidence for a small claims lawsuit he filed this month in Whatcom County District Court.
According to a statement read by the fire chief at Wednesday’s public hearing, as a firefighter, Berkeley purchased his own helmet, boots, flashlight, Res-Q-Rench, and a small hand ax. He stored them at a locker in a fire station. The gear went missing sometime after he lost volunteer status in April 2012.
About a year later Berkeley asked for his gear back, but staff under previous chief Ron Anderson couldn’t find it, according to Pernett. Berkeley asked the new chief to search for the gear again in June 2015. And again it couldn’t be found.
The next month Berkeley gave the chief list prices of the missing gear, with a total value of $892.85. Over the weeks that followed, Berkeley discussed the gear with the chief before and after board meetings, and the chief told him the district would not reimburse him because of how much time had elapsed and district policy. (Berkeley was still hanging on to the gear issued by the district.) Pernett didn’t want to give him special treatment. At the time, Pernett said, Berkeley seemed to agree. Then he brought up the missing gear again in January. The chief replied with a formal letter outlining his reasons for the denial.
“As fire chief this put me in a rather strange position,” Pernett said. “I’m dealing with a management issue from a volunteer, but I’m dealing with a fire commissioner who I feel is using his position to try and force me to pay him for his lost equipment.”
Last month a process server approached Pernett outside a board meeting: The fire district was being sued by Berkeley for $1,000. To Berkeley the situation is straightforward.
“My equipment was there and it’s missing,” Berkeley said. “Like I told them before: Am I just making this up? Where did it go?”
The board, in Berkeley’s absence, voted 4-0 to let Pernett represent the district in small claims court on Nov. 3.
“We have a lot more important items and issues here to deal with than having a commissioner who is constantly fighting against not only the board, but the chief and administrative staff, too,” said Commissioner Bruce Ansell at the meeting this week. “It’s extremely disappointing to me that he behaves in this way.”
The commissioners also approved motions to meet with county and state auditors about Berkeley’s residency, and whether he committed fraud when he sought reimbursement for several other trips to city council meetings in Canada.
“We just want to make sure it’s investigated, and if there isn’t a problem, that’s great,” Pernett said. “I think our taxpayers would hold us responsible if we did nothing.”
Berkeley’s requests to be reimbursed for the trips were denied by the chief.
Asked if he was approved to represent the district at the hearings in Canada, Berkeley told a reporter: “As an elected official you’re a salesman. I’m the boss. Why should I need approval?”
Update Friday morning, Sept. 30. Four of five commissioners at North Whatcom Fire and Rescue released a two-page statement outlining concerns over Berkeley. Read it here.