But door left open to future consideration

By Ann McCreary

After hearing another legal opinion during an executive session Monday (March 14), Okanogan County Fire District 6 commissioners took no action regarding a contract that provides a two-year paid leave to Fire Chief Don Waller.

Without providing details of their conversation with an attorney about the contract, Commissioner Jerry Palm said trying to rescind the agreement “would cost the district a bunch of money and time.”

Commissioners also indicated that the district’s previous lack of written policies governing accrual of sick leave, annual leave and compensatory time gives the district few options to alter the agreement signed in December.

Commissioner Darold Brandenburg made a motion to “leave the contract … in place,” but Palm and Les Stokes said they wanted to hold off on any formal action.

The employment contract will pay Waller more than $150,000 over the next two years for more than 4,000 hours he said he has accrued since he was hired in 2002.

During the leave, Waller will retain medical benefits, continue to accrue sick leave and vacation leave, and have use of a district vehicle. Waller will also continue to respond to fires and maintain training and certifications during the leave under terms of the employment agreement.

The contract agreement was presented as an addendum that was drawn up by Waller’s personal attorney. Waller presented it to the commission at the last meeting in December, which was also the last meeting for longtime commissioner Roy Reiber. Waller announced his intention to retire at the end of the paid leave.

Future action?

Although the district took no action this week with regard to the contract, they appeared to leave the door open to possible future action.

“The attorney is not saying everything is fine the way it is,” Stokes said.

“We’re still in the middle here. We can’t say what the attorney has said,” Palm said.

Ron Perrow, a Winthrop resident who has been openly critical of the contract with Waller, told commissioners that he has provided information about the contract to Okanogan County Prosecutor Karl Sloan to evaluate. He said he also discussed the contract with Okanogan County commissioners and County Sheriff Frank Rogers.

Perrow said he sent Sloan a copy of the chief’s contract and the addendum last week, as well as copies of the district’s policies on sick leave and vacation leave.

Those policies were adopted in 2007 when the three division chiefs were hired, about five years after Waller was hired as the first paid employee.

In an interview after the commission meeting, Perrow said he believes district policies limit the number of hours that can be accrued and paid at termination to 520 hours of sick leave and 240 hours of vacation leave. That is far less than the 4,021 hours for which Waller will be compensated in the contract addendum approved by commissioners.

Perrow said he requested Sloan to determine whether the money provided Waller through the contract addendum was a “gift of taxpayer money,” whether Waller’s contract conflicts with district policies for annual and sick leave, and whether Waller qualifies for compensation time as an exempt employee.

Commissioners have consulted with the district’s attorney, Brian Snur, and spoke Monday with a second attorney, Thomas Burke, who is affiliated with Snur and specializes in labor and employment law.

“If there isn’t any [leave] policy in place over so much time … past practice takes precedence,” Palm said after the discussion with Burke.

“I don’t believe there was a policy in place for compensatory time, so that leaves a question of what it can be,” said Brandenburg. “There was a lot of missing stuff that should have been in place.”

Policy approved

To address the lack of formal policies on compensatory time, commissioners approved a policy presented Monday by Interim Chief Cody Acord, who is serving in that position during Waller’s leave. Acord said the policy was drafted by the district’s attorney, and limits accrual of compensatory time to 240 hours.

If an employee accrues the maximum number of hours, all additional overtime hours will be paid at 150 percent of the regular rate, according to the policy. The policy applies to non-exempt employees, which includes the district’s three paid division chiefs.

Acord said regular training sessions, previously held in the evenings outside the 40-hour work schedule, have been changed to take place during regular working hours to reduce comp time.

Management of comp time for exempt employees — the chief and assistant chief — is up to the commissioners, Acord said.

Acord also initiated a practice of providing records of employees’ accrued time to commissioners to review at every meeting to keep track of accrued time. Employees who are accumulating large amounts of comp time would be encouraged to take it before reaching the limit and forcing the district to pay overtime, Acord said.

“We’re going to make sure from this day forward that we watch the time and have Cody manage the time,” Palm said.

The district is waiting for the results of an audit of employee hours that is being conducted by the Washington State Auditor’s office in response to a citizen hotline call related to the Waller contract.

The auditor last month collected handwritten logbooks kept by employees since Waller was hired in 2002 to record work hours. The district adopted a computerized system last year for tracking employee hours.

“The auditor said he looked into Don’s time and didn’t find discrepancies one way or another,” Acord told commissioners. The audit “would provide input about the agency as a whole” related to accrued hours and recordkeeping, he said.