By Pat Jenkins
Graham Fire and Rescue fire chief Ryan Baskett is on leave while complaints against him by the firefighters union are being reviewed.
Baskett, the chief since 2013, said last week that he welcomes “a 360-degree review” of complaints filed by Pierce County Professional Firefighters Local 726.
According to the union, 58 of the 60 Graham firefighters it represents cast a no-confidence vote against Baskett. In written communications in January with the fire district’s commissioners, Local 726 president Russ Karns said the vote stems from the union’s dissatisfaction with a rising injury rate among firefighters the last four years, contract negotiations between the union and the district that required mediation, and management-employee relations.
Karns formally asked the commissioners in a letter Jan. 9 for an investigation of the union members’ complaints. At their meeting Jan. 23, the commissioners revealed there will be a third-party review.
Baskett, in a letter to the commissioners, said he supports their decision and believes the probe will exonerate him.
“Complete organizational transparency is the only way to maintain the public’s trust,” he said. “I am confident that an unbiased review will find I used logical reasoning and a practical approach in every decision made since I became fire chief. In the end, the information gained will continue to improve and move this organization in a positive direction.”
Baskett said he’s disappointed by the no-confidence vote of the firefighters, but believes they feel “they are doing what is necessary to support their (union) leadership.”
At the Jan. 23 meeting of the commissioners, officials announced Baskett would take administrative leave – an authorized absence with pay – during the review, which reportedly will last about three weeks. Assistant chief Tony Judd will head the fire department in his absence.
Gerald Gustafson, chairman of the fire commissioners, couldn’t be reached for comment.
Baskett has received support from the public, including a group called Concerned Citizens Who Want to Keep the Integrity of Our Fire Districts. Carol Benum, representing the group at last week’s meeting, gave the commissioners a statement in which the group accused Karns and the union of using “strongarm tactics to obtain their own personal goals.” The citizens’ group also claimed the union unfairly uses no-confidence votes against fire chiefs in an attempt to gain an advantate in labor contract negotiations.
Baskett has a long history wth Graham Fire and Rescue. He joined the district in 1989 as a firefighter, eventually became an assistant chief, and was appointed by the commissionerrs as chief in June 2013.
Graham serves a population of approximately 60,000 people in a 90-square-mile unincorporated area of Pierce County, including all or parts of Graham, Kapowsin, Frederickson and South Hill. The district has six fire stations.
Voters have supported the district’s tax requests in elections the past three years. Last year, they approved a permanent levy for emergency medical services. And in 2014, they passed a four-year, $11 million levy to hire more personnel and reverse cuts in service.