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Low says he may replace Fitch with a new town administrator if elected mayor

Robert Low ... candidate for mayor of Friday Harbor said he may consider hiring a new town administrator if he
Robert Low ... candidate for mayor of Friday Harbor said he may consider hiring a new town administrator if he's elected.
— image credit: Scott Rasmussen

After each election since he's served as town administrator, King Fitch has offered the incoming mayor his resignation.

Because the town administrator serves at the pleasure of the mayor, Fitch’s offer gives the new chief executive the opportunity to make a change if he sees fit.

Fitch made the offer to James Cahail, Bill LaPorte, Gary Boothman, David Jones.

For the first time, Fitch may have a taker.

Robert Low said Tuesday that if he is elected mayor, he “may” accept Fitch’s resignation and recruit a new administrator.

“I have mixed feelings about it,” Low said, after considerable thought, of keeping Fitch as administrator. “He and I don’t always see eye to eye.”

Low, who as town fire chief until 2006 reported to Fitch, said the town administrator “was a good manager."

"In some instances, he stood by me,” Low said, crediting Fitch with standing up for the purchase of the aerial truck which proved so effective in fighting the May 2002 fire at First and Spring streets.

But when asked if he would accept Fitch’s offer of resignation, he said, again after some thought, “I may accept it. I say ‘may,’ because I wouldn’t take it without talking to people first. I’d want input from the Town Council, from town employees, from people on the street … Maybe people think he’s a good fit.”

Town Council member Carrie Lacher, who is hoping to become the first woman elected Friday Harbor's mayor, said today she would keep Fitch as town administrator.

"No, I would not accept King's resignation," she wrote in an e-mail.

Low, county fire marshal, served as town fire chief from 1998 to 2006. He didn’t feel Fitch always supported him as an employee, and since then has differed with Fitch over street improvements, the decision to not open Nash Street year-round, and the placement of pedestrian bumpouts on town streets.

Nash Street is mostly undeveloped and Fitch has been hesitant to open it – the budgetary decision is the Town Council’s – because the town doesn’t have the money to develop it and he fears it would become a hazardous stretch of road.

Nash Street was opened as a gravel road during the dry months last year and was closed in winter, although this year it has been closed, obstructed by two large concrete blocks.

Nash Street leads into Low’s Spruce Street neighborhood. Low, who is also an EMT, said not opening Nash Street threatens public safety because emergency vehicles must travel around to Argyle Avenue in order to access the neighborhood.

Likewise, the pedestrian bumpouts, designed to provide pedestrians a better view of oncoming traffic, impede the movement of emergency vehicles, Low said. (Fitch said the bumpouts are called for in the town's street standards.)

Low has also spoken at Town Council meetings, asking that the town put Spruce Street on the Six-Year Transportation Improvement Plan for road improvements. When the neighborhood was built, street and stormwater standards were relaxed so the developer could keep the sale price of homes lower. Many of those original homeowners are now gone, and current homeowners say they are paying the price in roads rutted by water and ice that accumulates in inclement weather.

Low said he and his neighbors have mostly felt neglected by the town; Mayor David Jones and then-Councilman Kelley Balcomb-Bartok were to meet with neighbors last year, but that meeting never took place. Balcomb-Bartok proposed that neighbors establish a local improvement district to pay for improvements.

Aug. 6, Low asked the Town Council to at least place an asphalt overlay on the road – the lifespan of an asphalt overlay is about five years – as a temporary fix. The Town Council asked that the town begin to figure out the extent and cost of the work that would need to be done.

Differences date to days as chief
Low’s differences with Fitch date back to 1998, when Low was appointed fire chief.

Mayor Gary Boothman appointed Low, saying he thought the long-time volunteer firefighter brought stability to the department. Fitch differed with the mayor on the appointment, saying the chief's position should be treated like any other job opening and the position advertised. The following year, the Town Council gave the town administrator direct supervision of the fire chief.

Low was a water treatment plant operator when he became fire chief June 8, 1998; the position became full-time the following Jan. 1.

As a certified utility worker, he earned $33,728 a year. From June 8 to Jan. 1, he divided his time between the fire station and the water plant, and his wage was bumped to $43,618. He continued to draw that salary through 1999 after he moved to the fire station full-time. But Low was never satisfied with his salary.

While Low was chief, his position was unionized; Fitch opposed the chief's position being subject to collective bargaining — it's not an hourly position, the chief is on call 24/7, and he supervises a training officer and a volunteer force, Fitch said.

The fire chief's position, even under the union, was salaried with no step increases like other positions. Fitch remembers Low as being "incredibly frustrated" with raises received by other non-union department managers.

"He stewed in the union," Fitch said.

Fitch later assigned Low the responsibilities of fire marshal — fire investigations, business fire-safety inspections — which had been under the building department and which earned him a little more money.

Low tried a new tack to boost his income — he asked for a significant raise as fire marshal. Fitch said he thought that was tantamount to negotiating outside of the union contract, but he and the Town Council wanted "to keep him interested" because Low had said he might have to take a job off-island.

However, in response, three other employees with collateral duties — the executive assistant/town clerk, finance director/town treasurer, and land use administrator/town marshal — asked for significant raises as well to make a point. Those requests were rejected by the Town Council.

Ultimately, the pay for the fire marshal was increased from a token $661 to $7,322.50 a year. By the time he left the town to become county fire marshal, Low was earning $52,363.50 a year — an increase of $18,635 a year in eight years. Still, he said, "Toward the end there, I hadn’t received a raise for a while. There was no place for me to go.”

Fitch said the town "did everything we could" to keep Low interested in his job.

"When someone feels undervalued, sometimes no matter what the employer does, you can't change the employee's perception that he or she is undervalued," Fitch said.

Fitch’s retirement would end a town career dating to 1982, when he was appointed to the planning commission by Mayor Ralph Rich. Fitch was later hired as building inspector, then became administrator in 1988.

During his tenure as administrator, several major public improvement projects were completed, among them the new wastewater treatment plant. The town boundaries were expanded. The positions of historical preservation officer and land use administrator were created. And key positions were restructured; Wendy Picinich, the elected town treasurer, is also a town employee as finance director, ensuring the town wouldn't lose her expertise should she lose election.

Town officials give Fitch and Picinich credit for getting the town disciplined in saving money and shoring up the town's budget reserves.

"If I've had any strength, it's been my ability to work with various mayors and councils," he said.

Fitch is very aware of his source of authority. The Friday Harbor Municipal Code Chapter 2.08 states the position of town administrator "may be filled by appointment by the mayor and, at his discretion, the mayor may remove the town administrator."

"I believe that to the fullest extent," Fitch said of the law. "I feel that whomever is elected should have working for him or her the most qualified person. (But) if there is any tension, the mayor should make a change."

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