News

Chief let go by board in District 12

By Jessica Keller, The Courier-Herald

For the second time in about two years, Fire District 12 is without a fire chief.

District 12 commissioners and ex-Chief Bill Steele are calling the move to no longer keep Steele on as fire chief a "separation" from the district.

Steele was informed of the commissioners' decision at a special meeting Oct. 27 and Steele removed his belongings from District 12 headquarters the next day. Steele was on administrative leave with pay until Saturday and is receiving severance pay through the end of February.

Commissioner Doug Hudson referred all questions of Steele's separation to district attorney Joe Quinn, stating that was the policy the commissioners decided on. He said, however, the commissioners haven't discussed whether another chief with be hired or who will replace Steele in the interim. Until that is decided, Hudson said, Fire Chief Jake Doty of Fire District 20, who is the coordinator for the volunteer firefighter program, will continue those duties.

Quinn said Steele was not released from his duties because of misconduct of any kind, but because "he didn't successfully complete the probationary period."

Steele was hired in February and slated to be on probation until February 2004, allowing the chief and commissioners time to get to know each other and make sure a compatible working relationship could be formed. Both Quinn and Steele say that's a fairly common practice.

"It just didn't work out," Quinn said.

Quinn said the district is in a critical time of transition right now, as more duties are performed under the tri-district consolidation agreement between districts 12, 20 and East Pierce Fire & Rescue. He said it takes strong leadership and interpersonal skills to run the district smoothly, and Steele didn't meet the district's qualifications.

This was decided by commissioners based on evidence attained over time, including many different incidents and events that took place, although Quinn declined to give any specific examples, stating it was a combination of interactions.

Quinn also said a chief of a fire district must lead by example, communicate and engender respect and trust between the chief and the board of commissioners and the chief and the staff. Lately, that hasn't been up to standard, he said.

Quinn pointed out, however, Steele didn't do anything wrong, and said the decision was made specifically by the board of District 12 and had nothing to do with the tri-district consolidation or any possibility of a merger between the three districts.

Steele said District 12's decision probably didn't have anything to do with the consolidation agreement, but he did have his own ideas on what caused the separation.

Steele said he and the board had philosophical differences at where the district was going and how rapidly those plans were occurring. He said the board is getting into the consolidation agreement rapidly and carrying out all the levels of detail in the agreement.

He said he envisioned the consolidation efforts occurring over a three to five year period, but most of the changes occurred during the first three months he worked for the district.

"I'm OK with the consolidation agreement but not hot to the idea," because of how quickly it's progressing, he said.

He said instead of entering and following all the provisions set in the tri-district consolidation agreement, District 12 could have looked into other viable options such as joining forces with Buckley, retaining its indepence and staying on its own, contracting services with District 20, just to name a few.

"There were several other different possibilities I really wanted to have more opportunity to explore before the board headed full steam into the tri-district agreement," Steele said.

Steele also thought in addition to entering into the tri-district consolidation agreement so precipitously, the commissioners are ignoring the long-term possibilities, and they need to begin a long-term planning process.

"That's the other part that I think is missing, that (the commissioners) don't, it could lead to a single agency concept in the future, which is the merger word that nobody wants to use."

Steele also said he has been receiving mixed messages from different board members on the whole tri-district consolidation from day one, which he said is the single biggest issue for him.

He said some board members agree with him that they have not included enough public input. Another board member says District 12 should work with Buckley, while others say Buckley is not part of the agreement, so while the district should have a social agreement with Buckley their focus should be working with the East Pierce program.

Steele said, at first, he thought working closely with East Pierce was just one of the alternatives, but as he continued to work in the district it because more clear the commissioners wanted him to follow closely to the East Pierce policies and procedures. That was when Steele started to have some qualms about whether the arrangement between him and the district would work out in the long run because his philosophy as chief, and where his expertise lies, is having a department that relies mostly on volunteers, with a few career firefighters to back them up, whereas East Pierce relies mostly on career firefighters, with a few volunteers to back them up.

Steele said when the District 12 commissioners hired him, they did not articulate clearly what direction the district was taking and at what pace.

Steele said soon after he began the job everything began moving toward the tri-district consolidation and a merger, as most of the commissioners are in favor of a merger. Steele also said in his initial contract, the commissioners never put in writing their objectives for Steele in writing as his contract language required.

On the whole Steele said he was not unhappy with how things worked out, and is now deciding what he wants to pursue in the future. He said he has nothing negative to say.

"I want to be very positive and upbeat about this whole thing," he said. "I want to be very positive and supportive of the board and the tri-district consolidation to the extent that it is."

Jessica Keller can be reached at jkeller@courierherald.com

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