By Pat Jenkins
In the wake of his unplanned departure as the chief of Graham Fire and Rescue after a falling out with firefighters and their labor union, Ryan Baskett believes he helped make the district stronger and calls the opposition he faced "a surprise."
Baskett left his position last month in what he called a mutual decision with the fire district's commissioners. He was chief since 2013 and had worked for the district for 28 years, starting in 1989 as a firefighter.
In a rift that became public in January, complaints were filed against Baskett 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 him. Their grievances included management-employee relations, dissatisfaction with a rising injury rate among firefighters the last four years, and contract negotiations between the union and the district that required mediation.
Union leaders asked the commissioners in a letter Jan. 9 for an investigation of the complaints. Later that month, the commissioners hired Prothman Company, an Issaquah-based organizational consulting firm, to conduct a third-party review. At the time, Baskett said he welcomed the review and believed it would exonerate him.
But after the firm's completed report was reviewed privately by the commissioners and Baskett in March, the commissioners reached a severance agreement with Baskett in April. His departure occurred with little public notice and no formal statement about it from the commissioners or Baskett. He spoke to The Dispatch on April 24.
Baskett disagreed with earlier reporting by The Dispatch that he was fired. He said he and the commissioners "agreed that the best way for the district to move forward was for me to leave. It was a mutually agreed upon separation."
Before going on administrative leave in January after the union members' vote of no-confidence, Baskett defended his actions as chief and said he believed the firefighters were doing what they believed was “necessary to support their (union) leadership.”
Last month, he said he remains positive about his work as chief and the condition of the fire district.
”I’ve always been truthful with the public. I always had the citizens at heart and made decisions based on what’s best for them and the organization,” he said.
The firefighters' vote of no confidence was “a surprise and very painful,” Baskett said. “Right now I’m letting the wounds heal. This was very disappointing for me and my family. My wife and I will see where we go from here.”
There has been no response to repeated requests for comment from Commissioners Gerald Gustafson and Russ Barstow, the chairman and vice chairman of the commissioners, respectively. No press releases, formal statements or other information about the commissioners’ action involving Baskett, or the hiring last month of an interim chief to replace him, have been distributed or posted on the district’s web site, other than minutes from commissioner meetings.
Baskett, 54, grew up in the Graham community. The commissioners have acknowledged his deep local ties. At several commissioner meetings after the dispute involving the union became public knowledge, community members, including local business leaders, spoke strongly in support of Baskett. A group called Concerned Citizens Who Want to Keep the Integrity of Our Fire Districts accused the union of using “strongarm tactics to obtain their own personal goals.” The citizens’ group claimed the union unfairly uses no-confidence votes against fire chiefs in an attempt to gain an advantage in labor contract negotiations.
When Baskett was appointed in mid-2013 to replace the previous chief, who retired, the district was struggling with budget issues. It had lost about 30 percent of its revenue since 2008 due to reduced revenue from property taxes. Six firefighter positions that were open during that time weren’t filled in order to hold costs down.
• Voters approved a four-year, $2.75 million-a-year ($11 million total) maintenance and operations levy by the necessary 60 percent supermajority. Projected to cost taxpayers an additional 60 cents per $1,000 of assessed valuation, it instead was collected at a lower rate of 54 cents. The funds allowed the district to begin hiring more firefighters, resume 24-hour staffing of two fire stations that had been reduced to part-time operations because of staff shortages, and reopen a station in the Thrift area that had been closed, also because of insufficient manpower. The district also bought a new medical aid vehicles to replace an old one, began funding a deferred-equipment replacement program, improved department training and public education programs, and began setting aside reserve funds again.
• In 2015, the district received favorable reports from independent reviews of its financial management. The state auditor said a financial audit of fiscal year 2013 found the district in compliance with all regulations for safeguarding public resources. And Standard and Poor’s, which issues ratings that determine the bond worthiness (similar to credit ratings) of government agencies, gave the district an AA- rating and cited the district’s “stable outlook.”
• Last year, voters approved the district’s request to make its emergency medical services (EMS) levy permanent. Instead of being asked every four years to decide on renewing the EMS levy, voters now have locked in a 50 cents per $1,000 tax rate for money to maintain EMS. The change also saves the district the approximately $40,000 it had to spend each time to conduct an EMS levy election on four-year cycles.
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