Firefighters union draws flak

LACEY – The Lacey firefighters union wants to recruit candidates to run against incumbent council members this year.

Council members have criticized Lacey Professional Firefighters Local 2903 for involving the local political parties in nonpartisan races.

The union wrote to the local parties about its disappointment in the City Council’s performance. The letter said the union has been “actively searching” for interested residents to run, and mentioned its willingness to endorse candidates who are “fair, engaged, and open to communication with the public safety professionals that serve this community.” The April 7 letter was sent to the county Democratic and Republican parties.

“Please forward this to your membership and encourage any interested parties to contact us. … We are very motivated to help this community get the leadership it deserves,” the letter said.

Union president Kelly Perry said the letter stems from the organization’s unhappiness with the city’s handling of its dispute with Lacey Fire District No. 3. He said the intent is to elect council members who are willing to open a line of communication with the union, which he said has been missing with the current leadership. He acknowledged that another intent was to try to reverse the council’s recent decision to part ways with the district starting in 2012. He said the union is not looking for candidates who “are going to be in our pocket,” but rather, people who make informed decisions after examining all the information.

“This is the key issue for us: They unanimously voted to discontinue the contract with the fire district, and they made that decision without knowing what it (the new fire department) is going to look like and what it’s going to cost,” he said.

The letter drew criticism from at least two council members. Councilman Virgil Clarkson called the union’s action offensive and said he’d speak, either as an individual or on behalf of the council, before the Democrats’ meeting next week to voice his concerns. Councilwoman Ann Burgman’s response was more muted.

“They’re welcome to do that,” she said.

Mayor Graeme Sackrison said the decision to involve the political parties in nonpartisan races was “uncalled for and completely inappropriate.”

“The decision to form our own department isn’t about firefighters and it isn’t about the firefighters union,” he said. “It’s about the structural limitations of contracted fire service and the performance of the management of Fire District 3.”

Perry responded that the decision is very much about firefighters, as the loss of funding after the current service agreement expires could cost firefighters their jobs.

“For Graeme to come out and say we shouldn’t have a voice in anything is disturbing,” he said.

Perry said the union has been in contact with 16 people who have expressed an interest in running. He declined to identify them. He said the union would raise money for the candidates who do run.

Scott Roberts, the chairman of the Thurston County Republican Party, said the organization has taken no action on the letter and that it would be a topic of discussion for the executive board at its meeting in two weeks.

The Democratic Party representatives did not return phone messages seeking comment Monday. The Thurston County Democratic Party has posted the union’s letter on its Web site.

The letter broadens a dispute with district management over operational and financial decisions that went public last summer. It led to the city’s announcement in February that it will end its four-decade relationship with the district when the service agreement expires in December 2011 and form its own fire department.

A lawsuit filed by the city to force the district to reopen the Hawks Prairie fire station, which was closed because of budget cuts, is pending. A trial is scheduled to begin Aug. 17. The two sides have held initial talks to try to resolve the impasse over the closed station.

Four of the seven council seats are up for election. Sackrison and Burgman said Monday that they will seek re-election. Deputy Mayor John Darby didn’t return a phone message but has filed paperwork with the state Public Disclosure Commission indicating he will run for the seat again. Clarkson is considering his options.

Christian Hill is a reporter for The Olympian and can be reached at 360-754-5427 or chill@theolympian.com.