The tension that has grown in Port McNeill over a June decision to remove the volunteer Fire Chief was thick at a crowded July 20 council meeting where some residents questioned the process and transparency of the situation.
Former volunteer Fire Chief Chris Walker says he was called in for a June 23 meeting with Mayor Shirley Ackland and Town Administrator Sue Harvey and informed of complaints made against him. He says he was told to choose between resigning or being terminated. He chose to resign, but says after not receiving an acceptance of his resignation, he rescinded it on June 29. The same day he received a letter from the Town of Port McNeill removing him from the Fire Department, which read that he had breached items #2, 3 and 4 in the Port McNeill Fire Department’s Code of Ethics by engaging in a “personal relationship with a female member of the volunteer fire department.”
At the July 20 council meeting a petition to reinstate Walker was presented to council by resident Cathy Black. Black told council she took issue with the use of the Port McNeill Fire Department’s Code of Ethics in the matter of Walker’s removal, a document she described as a “one-page, vague list of statements with unclear interpretations.” Black went on to call the Code of Ethics “way too vague to ever enforce fairly.”
The online petition Black presented at press time currently had 334 signatures, however many signatures are from people who are not currently Port McNeill residents and voters. Mayor Ackland thanked Black for the presentation.
Some questions from the public at the end of the meeting centred on whether the proper requirements were met that closed a meeting where the removal of Walker was discussed.
According to section 92 of the Community Charter, if a meeting is to be closed, a council must state, by resolution in a public meeting both that the meeting or part of it will be closed, and under what basis of section 90 it is to be closed. Section 90 lists the subject matter that can qualify a meeting to be closed to the public.
When contacted by the Gazette to see if this was done at the June 15 council meeting – the last regular council meeting held before Walker’s June 29 removal – Harvey responded in an email that it was not done at that meeting. Harvey wrote that instead council met as the “personnel committee” which sometimes happens when issues arise that need immediate attention in between regularly-scheduled council meetings.
Under section 93 of the Community Charter, these requirements that apply to council meetings also apply to other bodies, including council committees.
Resident Terry Eissfeldt said it appeared to her based on her research that the proper requirements had not been made and asked about the process that led to the closed meeting. Mayor Ackland noted that there is some flexibility for council to meet in urgent situations.
“Councils have a little bit of leeway to be able to deal with situations that arise where we don’t have a public meeting and we don’t in small communities have the ability to get it out into the paper that arrives once every week, so we have our personnel meeting that goes into an in-camera meeting that follows a council meeting such as this,” she said.
Black questioned the urgent nature of the Walker situation, and asked if the matter was an emergency that could not wait to be put on the agenda at a public meeting. Mayor Ackland said that the situation needed to be dealt with very quickly, and said that the personnel committee does not require a town-threatening emergency to meet.
On July 27 Mayor Ackland said she had no comment on the issue apart from that the correct procedure to deal with the situation had been followed from the start.
“We need strong leadership in the Fire Department,” Black said when reached in the week following the meeting, citing Walker’s 17 years as Fire Chief as a valuable asset to the town.
She says that she found the July 20 council meeting very frustrating, and thinks that despite residents asking questions at multiple meetings, they are receiving evasive answers, not the results they want. Black says that she and other community members are determined to find concrete answers.
“It’s not going to end here.”