Former Friday Harbor fire chief receives $21,482 severance package

Friday Harbor Fire Chief Vern Long has resigned, effective Oct. 18.  - Richard Walker / August 2010
Friday Harbor Fire Chief Vern Long has resigned, effective Oct. 18.
— image credit: Richard Walker / August 2010

Former Town Fire Chief Vern Long, who resigned effective Oct. 18, will receive a severance package of three months salary, health benefits for three months, and payment of unused vacation hours.

All told, the package is worth $21,482.10: Three months salary at $5,110.58 per month; employee health insurance premiums at $530.13 per month; and unused vacation hours of 154.68 hours at $29.48 per hour, totaling $4,559.97.

The severance package is included in a Mutual Separation and Release Agreement signed on Oct. 8 by Long and on Oct. 12 by Mayor Carrie Lacher. The agreement was made available to the public Oct. 19, the day after it took effect.

In the agreement, Long and the town agree to "release each other from any and all claims arising from or related to the employment relationship." Long also agrees to "not participate or concur in any remarks or actions that are disparaging or detrimental in any way" regarding the town, its officers and it employees.

The agreement states that Long is not eligible for rehire by the town. Town Attorney Adina Cunningham said that stipulation is "a pretty standard term in these kinds of agreements."

"It doesn't make a whole lot of sense, when you are giving a payment of three months salary as he leaves, to hire him back again," she said. However, she said the no-rehire provision is not a reflection on Long; she said the town offered the separation agreement to Long and he agreed to take it, but he could have declined the offer and returned to work. She also said that if Long wants to work for the town in the future, he could be considered if he and the town "mutually agreed" to a change to that part of the separation agreement.

Long resigned effective Oct. 18. He went on medical leave Aug. 18, after coming off two days of unpaid suspension. He was suspended by Fitch after published photos showed a firefighter without proper gear fighting a car fire, under the chief’s supervision.

Four fire officers and a firefighter submitted a letter of no confidence in the chief and resigned. The town hired a Seattle law firm, Patterson Buchanan, to investigate claims made about Long’s leadership by those firefighters.

Fitch said Long has not been interviewed by Patterson Buchanan, but he hoped Long would consent to an interview so he can give his version of events.

Several phone messages left on Long's home telephone answering machine since he was suspended and went on leave were not returned by Oct. 19.

Meanwhile, town and fire district officials are discussing the efficiencies that could come from consolidating the departments. The Town Council and Fire District Commission met jointly Sept. 16 and will meet again Oct. 21 at noon in Town Hall. That evening, the Town Council is scheduled to vote on a contract with a consultant who specializes in consolidation of fire departments.

Deputy Fire Chief Tom Eades has been serving as acting fire chief; he is a 911 dispatcher from 6 a.m. to 2 p.m., so District Fire Chief Steve Marler and Assistant Chief Brad Creesy are supporting the town fire department's volunteer duty officer.

The town fire department has 25 volunteer firefighters and support personnel. All told, the department has a 2010 annual budget of about $350,000.

Long was the department's only salaried staff member, at $61,327 a year. Eades receives a small stipend. Another position — assistant chief for training, salaried at $30,000 a year — has been vacant since Frank Chaffee moved off-island in March.

Regarding potential consolidation of the administration of the town and district fire departments, Lacher said in an earlier interview:

"The council started that discussion during our working retreats during the summer, and it's something District 3 is interested in exploring. The town fire department relies on volunteers, so there's a special kind of vulnerability. If a joint venture with District 3 means we all can have good coverage all of the time, that would be to everybody's advantage."

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