Viewpoint: Fire board – nuance offered

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By HOWARD BAKER

I read with interest the editorial in last week’s Driftwood and hope to add a little nuance.

I have to admit, as one of 18 trustees serving since April 2015 (11 of whom resigned before the end of term) that it is ridiculously easy to criticize the fire board. Indeed, you may have read some of my criticisms here in recent years while I was a member of the board of trustees. Just imagine how that endeared me to my colleagues!

Concerning recent news, the different interest groups have all been heard from in this newspaper: first, the resigned CAO; second, the resigned two former trustees; thirdly, the present chair of the board representing the five remaining members; and fourth and lastly, a health and safety committee representing firefighters. So here’s my two cents worth.

After Salt Spring’s professional firefighters became part of the International Association of Fire Fighters in 2006, the annual operating budget almost tripled from approximately $900,000 to $2.5 million in 2015 when I was elected to my first term as trustee.

This activist board I joined in December 2015 had been in office since late April of 2015 and by November had completed many recommendations of the Walker Report, had begun a capital reserve fund, relieved a chief of his duties and was in a process of negotiating with the firefighters union. (This is now nearing a judgement with binding arbitration.)

Thus began my awareness of issues of the fire department and ensuing instability in the board and front office administration. I’ve seen it from both sides now and up and down til my terms of office ended in 2019. My evolving opinion of their causes is as follows:

1) The disjointed management between administration and the firefighters’ union.

2) The governance structure of improvement districts. Created to provide services to small rural communities, improvement districts were never intended to become so large and complex as ours. According to the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing, improvement districts work best when members (electors) number less than 100, preferably 15 to 20. We have more than 6,000 in ours! Only landowners have a vote.

3) What I call a lack of collegiality on the board, which has included verbal attacks and campaigning against a fellow trustee, and a majoritarian ethos that prevents consensus. Maybe intransigence also if that means an unwillingness to listen to others and make reasonable compromises.

There are ways of addressing each of these problems. Stay tuned!

Also, I hope I can allay some fears that our fire/rescue operations are not fully functional. Fire/rescue operates very well under the supervision of its just-announced acting chief, former Assistant Chief Jamie Holmes, with full-time firefighters and POCs, the on-call firefighters who provide the most essential manpower and womanpower. Proof of the efficacy of firefighter training exists in the fact that several of our POCs have gone on to full-time positions in Vancouver, Langley and elsewhere.

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