Mayor Jon Martin read the following during his Mayor's Report at the February 14, 2022 City Council Meeting.
Complaints submitted to the City of Ocean Shores by Ocean Shores Professional Fire Fighters Local 2109 Union (IAFF 2109) and IAFF 2109 Union President Corey Kuhl concerning (1.) the hiring of an Assistant Fire Chief and (2.) Ocean Shores Fire Department staffing levels.
On Monday, February 7, 2022, the City of Ocean Shores received two (2) notifications. First, an Unfair Labor Practice Complaint. Second, a Unit Clarification Petition from IAFF Local 2109 Union President, Corey Kuhl.
On Wednesday, February 9, 2022, the City of Ocean Shores received a third Whistleblower Policy Complaint from a law firm addressed to Mayor Jon Martin on behalf of the Ocean Shores Professional Fire Fighters IAFF Local 2109.
The subject matter of the two complaints and the petition concerns the decision of the City to create an assistant fire chief position in the City’s fire department. As you may know, I am in favor of creating the position because I believe the fire department, given its size and structure, will benefit from additional leadership at the chief’s level. I also believe it is the right of the mayor and the city council to create and fund an assistant chief position. Local 2109 is opposed to the position. After being unable to persuade us to abandon the new position, Local 2109 began filing complaints and petitions in various forums. For the reasons discussed below, it is the City’s decision to proceed with its plans to fill the assistant chief position it created and to seek dismissal of the complaints.
When I became Mayor, I committed to being transparent, forthcoming, and to let the City Council and the community know what the City knows. I am very much aware of the lack of knowledge the Council and the Citizens had leading up to the Bathke case and the frustration in caused. It was suggested to me to discuss these new legal claims in Executive Session. However, I believe that in the interest of transparency, this should be discussed in an open public session.
The City takes these concerns seriously and has retained outside Council and outside investigators to assist investigating these claims. These filings deeply dishearten me; however, as I have said, I am wholly dedicated to the betterment of the City of Ocean Shores and our community and would like to discuss these matters with you from the City’s vantage point so our community can better understand these matters.
Allegations brought against the City of Ocean Shores:
The Unfair Labor Practice Complaint – This complaint alleges that the City of Ocean Shores did not bargain in good faith over the position of the Assistant Fire Chief.
The Unit Clarification Petition – This petition raises the issue of whether the new assistant chief position, given its expected duties and responsibilities, should be part of management or part of the union.
The Whistleblower Policy Complaint – This complaint states that the request and approval to hire an assistant fire chief by the City derives not from the need for more professional oversight of the Fire Department, but as an act of retaliation for previous complaints filed by Local 2109 Union President Corey Kuhl against Fire Chief Mike Thuirer. The filing, investigation, and resolution of these two previous complaints will be discussed in detail below.
The City’s Analysis of the Complaints:
The Unfair Labor Practice Complaint (ULP) – Local 2109 filed a ULP complaint with the Public Employment Relations Commission, or PERC. The City hired Michael Bolasina of Summit Law to defend the complaint. I am told that we are at the beginning of a process that could result in a hearing in approximately 6 months, with a decision from a PERC hearing in the next year. In the complaint, Local 2019 alleges that the City did not bargain in good faith over the creation of an assistant chief position.
First, it is the City’s position that it exercised a management right to add the position of assistant fire chief and was not legally required to bargain with Local 2109 before exercising this right. The Ocean Shores City Council voted for and approved this position. This is a much-needed position for many reasons, several of which will be outlined below.
Secondly, the idea the City did not bargain in good faith as claimed is simply untrue. The City did not enter into negotiations with Local 2109 over this matter. The City did, however; discuss with Local 2109 about the responsibilities of the assistant fire chief due to concerns that the assistant fire chief’s duties might overlap somewhat with the duties of the current captains. The discussion was successful, except in one part. Local 2109 insisted that the assistant fire chief could not and should not respond to certain types of emergency calls regardless of the circumstances. While the fire chief and I do not envision that the assistant fire chief will often respond to calls, we do not believe it is in the interest of public safety to have a qualified firefighter on duty. Moreover, the present fire chief Mike Thuirer is allowed to respond to such calls, and occasionally does, so it does not make any sense, either legally or factually, to disallow the assistant chief from doing so. It was on this issue only that discussions broke down, and we decided to proceed with the hiring process. I do not agree with Local 2109’s position, both legally and factually, and look forward to defending the case before PERC.
Regarding the Unit Clarification Petition – Local 2109 is seeking to have the new position of assistant chief declared part of the union. Currently, the position of chief is the only position not in the union. The City is creating this position as a high-level management position to work with the chief on management level functions when he is present, and to step into the position when he is away for any reason. The City will argue that the position, as created, is properly considered part of upper management and should not be part of the union.
Pursuant the Whistleblower Policy Complaint – This complaint arises from two separate incidents. The first was a complaint filed in May 2021 by Union President Corey Kuhl when Fire Chief Mike Thuirer disagreed with a shift change with two firefighters Captain Kuhl wanted both removed from his shift for disciplinary reasons. When Chief Thuirer denied that request, Union President Corey Kuhl submitted a discrimination complaint alleging Ocean Shores Fire Chief Mike Thuirer’s response was insufficient to Captain Kuhl demands. This incident was reviewed by an outside investigator who cleared Chief Thuirer of wrongdoing.
The second complaint came in June 2021, regarding a structure fire on Seagate Street SW. Fire Chief Thuirer found himself attempting to save two family dogs from a house engulfed in flames as a single responder at the structure fire. During the Seagate structure fire, OSFD was conducting transports to regional hospitals. Chief Thuirer, working alone, needed to administer urgent and immediate life and property saving measures. Following the fire, Captain Kuhl submitted a complaint asserting that Chief Thurier had violated safety practices by his actions on scene. Mayor Dingler referred the matter for investigation to a retired Everett fire commander. He concluded that Chief Thurier had not followed all the safety regulations in his actions, and made specific recommendations for trainings and other remedial measures. As a result of this investigation, Chief Thuirer attend a fire safety training class.
The Whistleblower Policy Complaint received by the City asserts the assistant fire chief position was created as an act of retaliation against Local 2109 for the above-referenced complaints. As someone who was directly involved in the creation of the position, I know for a fact it was not. As I explain below, the reason why the position is created is to benefit the City, its residents, and the employees of the fire department. Captain Kuhl’s prior complaints played no role in the decision making.
As I understand the process, it is my decision at this stage to either accept or reject the whistleblower retaliation complaint. If Local 2109 is dissatisfied with my response, it can then seek relief from the City Council. If Local 2019 is unhappy with the City Council’s response, it can then seek a hearing from an outside hearing examiner appointed by the State.
The City’s Response to the position of an Assistant Fire Chief
There has been a concerted effort to stop the City of Ocean Shores from hiring an assistant fire chief from the beginning by the Union and Union President Corey Kuhl. I am confident all councilmembers and much of the public are aware of this as President Kuhl spoke at both council meetings and he had contacted council members to discuss this subject outside of council meetings. After the council approved the new position, there arose yet another effort to prohibit the assistant fire chief from responding to any calls that involved an IDLH atmosphere (immediate dangerous to life or health). In other words, it was Local 2109’s position that the position, once created, could not participate in many fire suppression and life/safety situations.
As Mayor, I firmly believe the City needs an assistant fire chief. The benefits are numerous. Foremost is the need for more daily professional oversight and managerial expertise within the department. The fire department has the lowest number of executive and administrative staff in comparison to the jurisdictions the Union uses in its collective bargaining and to cities of or near equal size of ours in Grays Harbor. Local 2109’s current position differs from the positions it took in the recent contract negotiation in several important ways. During contractual negotiations for 2020-2022, Local 2109 requested additional compensation for fire captains by arguing that they were doing “Chief level work” and citing the fact they were required to do “multiple jobs ” at managerial levels above their positions as captains. The creation of an assistant chief position would remedy the problem of captains being overloaded with chief level responsibilities.
While I was not mayor at the time of the Bathke lawsuit, there is reason to believe that an assistant chief may have resolved some of the differences that led to his ouster and subsequent legal claims, which cost the City over a million dollars. As I discussed previously, I do not see how limiting the assistant fire chief’s duties and making him or her the only person in the fire department who cannot respond to IDLH calls serves the interests of public or firefighter safety.
The City’s Response to Local 2109’s criticism of OSFD Staffing Levels
At the heart of the whistleblower complaint is Local 2109’s position that the money is more appropriately spent on hiring additional firefighters. As you know, I agree that we need more firefighters, and steps are being taken to create and fund additional positions. I also want to point out that this position from Local 2109 is brand new. When Local 2109 had the opportunity to bargain for additional firefighters, it passed it up this opportunity and bargained instead for higher salaries for the captains.
I wish to lay out these facts chronologically here. During union contract negotiations conducted under the late Mayor Crystal Dingler (See the January 1, 2017- December 31, 2019, Union Contract), Local 2109 requested the following staffing levels:
Section 5.1 For purposes of safety and public service, the Employer shall provide a minimum staffing level of nineteen (19) paid bargaining unit personnel, which shall consist of three (3) Captains, three (3) Lieutenants, and thirteen (13) Firefighters (one of which is a Fire Inspector/Firefighter).
During the most recent round of Union Contract Negotiations in September & October of 2019, Local 2109 made the following requests to the City. President Corey Kuhl stated that the Union “only wanted to negotiate pay and strike all other priorities” and “wages & premiums were top priority”. Captain Kuhl insisted upon “a 20% pay increase to Captains” and wanted “Premium Pay added to Captains’ base salary”. President Kuhl stated the City could manage those pay increases during those negotiations, but they were “choosing not to”. When the City and the former Mayor refused to meet these salary demands, Local2109 Union President Corey Kuhl 10/18/2019 went to the Public Employment Relations Commission (PERC) for mediation.
The late Mayor Dingler made the following arguments at that time: (a.) that it would be impossible to pay the requested salaries while adding additional staffing, ambulances, and equipment, (b.) that raises of 20% for Captains and additional Premium Pay was not doable and would be impossible to get through Council, and (c.) most perhaps most importantly, that given the salaries then being insisted upon, the City would be unable to bring on additional Fire/EMS personnel. As a result, at the end of negotiations, Local 2109 ended up with the following salary figures below, and again, requested no additional staff from the City.
Effective 01/01/2020, 6% base wage increase, plus 2% CPI
Effective 01/01/2021, base wage increase, plus 2% CPI
Effective 01/01/2022, base wage increase, plus 2% CPI
Effective 01/01/2022, Premium Pay for Captains shall increase by 3% to 15%
Effective 01/01/2022, Premium Pay for Lieutenants shall increase by 3% to 8%
Top Wage (Captain/Paramedic)
Change per Year
Change 2019 to 2022
Nevertheless, despite Local 2109’s requests to remove staffing as a priority from union negotiations, the City, understanding the needs of the fire department, responded by adding staff. As a result of our undeniable call volume, the City added additional staff in the following ways:
In 2020, Fire Chief Mike Thuirer requested an additional firefighter/paramedic to help with the overtime and Labor & Industry costs. This request was approved, and the City hired a firefighter/paramedic in March of 2021. Also in March of 2021, the City Administration requested Grant Coordinator Sarah Bisson apply for a Safer Grant, which would add three (3) Fire Fighters to the Department. In 2021, the City Council (as a direct result of the City not being awarded the Safer Grant) voted to add an additional position to the 2020-2021 biennium budget. Lastly, during the budget amendment process, the City Administration requested the Council approve a Staffing and Cost of Service Study by Spring of 2022. This rate study will afford the funding plan necessary for future discussions with the City Council and the community to support adding additional firefighters and afford an honest and transparent cost for bringing new Fire Fighters to Ocean Shores. It likewise ensures the sustainability of our EMS fund and the necessary growth of our Fire Department.
The City has also already applied for another SAFER grant that would afford us three (3) new Fire Fighter positions next year if approved and has discussed plans to bring on additional staff this year to manage the South Station. In short, the City has created more (not fewer) fire department positions than were requested by Local 2109 during the last bargaining cycle and is actively engaged in looking for ways to bring on new staff in the year to come.
I have been clear on my focus on improving safety and welfare for the citizens of Ocean Shores. I and the community are exceedingly grateful for all the fire department does for us. There is no disagreement on that whatsoever! I support the adding of additional personal and support the idea of opening the South Fire Station. However, the time has also come for improvement management structures to help our City grow and better address the mistakes and situations that arose and continue to occur between the Union and our past and present Fire Chiefs. I maintain the City needs an Assistant Fire Chief who can respond to field fire and medical emergencies.