LACEY - The union representing Lacey firefighters has emerged as a potent force supporting three challengers in their efforts to unseat City Council members next month.
Members of Lacey Professional Firefighters Local 2903 oppose the council’s vote in February to end the service contract with their employer, Lacey Fire District No. 3. They have endorsed candidates – Ron Lawson, Cynthia Pratt and Andy Ryder – who oppose the city manager’s recommendation to form a city fire department and support either annexing the city into the district or continuing the relationship through a regional fire authority.
The union has contributed thousands of dollars and spent many hours knocking on voters’ doors and putting up campaign signs supporting the candidates, giving it a powerful voice in the debate over the future of emergency response in the community.
The city doesn’t operate its own fire department and has contracted with the Lacey Fire District for fire and emergency medical response for more than 40 years. That partnership has frayed, culminating in a lawsuit filed this year and an agreement to terminate the relationship early.
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Lt. Alex Christiansen, the union’s secretary, said the district is understaffed and that the only way to ensure sustainable, predictable funding is to remove the politics and let residents set the level of service they want to pay for through annexation or a regional fire authority.
“I never thought in my career that the most dangerous thing I’d face in my job is politicians, but that’s what I’ve experienced in this community in the last few years,” he said, “and that is what brings us to try to find people who are truly interested in public service and the community’s safety beyond saying that they are and then (taking) actions that defy it.”
Is the union too involved in an issue that directly affects it? It depends on whom you ask.
“To me, it’s unfortunate,” said Mayor Graeme Sackrison, who is running against Lawson. “This has not been about firefighters; it’s been about management and the decisions that management made that created this situation.”
Their work didn’t bother Councilwoman Ann Burgman, who is being challenged by Pratt.
“They’re entitled to support whomever they wish,” she said.
Contributing to a political campaign is nothing new for firefighter unions, but both candidates for the Lacey fire commissioner seat, which also will be decided in the November election, questioned whether the union was taking the right approach this time around.
Commissioner Frank Kirkbride said the union has no business in City Council races.
His challenger, Gene Dobry, acknowledged that the union has the right to support candidates, like any other organization.
“However, discretion can be a powerful ally, and I don’t believe the local firefighters union is doing themselves a favor by being involved in this year’s political controversy, especially when it could be perceived as vindictive and/or self-serving,” he said.
Nothing in state law forbids the level of involvement the union has demonstrated in these campaigns.
“Unions aren’t very restricted at all in Washington state when it comes to participating in elections,” said Lori Anderson, spokeswoman for the state Public Disclosure Commission, which enforces the state’s campaign-finance laws.
Kelly Fox, an Olympia fire lieutenant and the president of the Washington State Council of Firefighters, the statewide firefighters union, said the construction of a fourth fire station in Olympia emerged as a campaign issue two years ago. He said that issue “pales in comparison” to the one facing Lacey because of the effect that the council’s decision could have on firefighters’ jobs.
“The citizens have a right to know what the issues are,” he said. “This is an issue that very directly affects them.”
The district stands to lose substantial revenue without the city as a partner. A consultant’s report paid for by the district said it would have to lay off more than two dozen firefighters unless district voters increased property taxes. Another option for the district might be forming a regional fire authority with a neighboring district or districts, similar to an agreement voters in southwest Thurston County approved in August.
Union members said protecting jobs is a secondary concern after ensuring high-quality service and fast response in emergencies. Christiansen said he doubted that the city would start a department that would deliver the same level of service as provided by the district since before Lacey was a city. Lacey incorporated in 1966.
“Who knows this community better than us?” he asked.
The consultant’s report concluded that the city could serve its residents using three fire stations at an estimated annual cost of $4.8 million to $5.2 million a year.
Last year, the city refused a district request to increase its annual contribution to cover increasing costs. City leaders said the district managers made ill-advised financial decisions related to the operation of the jointly owned ladder truck and approval of a new labor contract.
After district voters rejected two measures to raise revenue, the district closed the fire station in Hawks Prairie to cut costs in January. The city sued the district, saying it was obligated under the contract to staff the station.
The sides reached a mediated settlement in May to reopen the station. The settlement moved the expiration of the service contract up a year to December 2010.
Union members said the breaking point came before the mediated settlement, with the unanimous vote to end the contract. The vote was added to the agenda at the beginning of the council meeting.
Union leaders sent letters to the local Democratic and Republican parties as they searched for candidates to run against the incumbents. The letters angered some council members who considered them an injection of partisanship into nonpartisan races.
Christiansen said the candidates don’t need to share the union’s position but do need to be honest and fair in their dealings with the community and the union.
Christiansen said the majority of the 77 union members are involved in the campaigns. The union has provided at least $500 to each candidate and will contribute more in the coming weeks, in the home stretch of the election season. He estimated that the union has provided a total of $3,500 to the candidates so far. The campaign work is done during off-duty hours, he said. The union contributed $300 to candidates it endorsed two years ago.
In comparison, contributions of the Olympia Firefighters Local 468 to Olympia City Council candidates ranged between $200 and $500, according to PDC campaign filings.
Lawson and Pratt said the union has played a significant role in their campaigns. The candidates say they can reach an objective decision on the issue despite the union’s involvement.
The council members up for election have softened their position on ending the contract and say the verdict is still out on how best to provide emergency response to city residents in the future. The city has resumed negotiations with the district to find a potential way to continue the relationship beyond 2010 as it also discusses dividing up fire stations and equipment if there’s a parting of ways.
Christian Hill: 360-754-5427