Newly elected Northshore fire commissioner Rick Verlinda announced at the board’s April 3 meeting that he will file ethics complaints with the state auditor’s office against two of his fellow board members for allegedly misusing public funds.
Under Washington state law, fire commissioners can receive a per diem payment of $114 “for time spent in actual attendance at official meetings of the board or in performance of other services or duties on behalf of the district,” not to exceed $10,944 per year.
Commissioners Don Ellis and Kae Peterson both hit that limit in 2017, with Ellis reaching it in 2016 as well, according to an email from Fire Chief Jim Torpin to Verlinda and commissioner David Maehren. Their compensation amounted to about $40,000 over two years.
“Reviewing some statistics and talking to Washington state and King County fire commissioners, and there are over a thousand commissioners in the state of Washington, I am told 98 percent [of them] don’t reach the maximum annual compensation,” Verlinda said. “We currently have two of our commissioners that receive the maximum amount.”
Verlinda did a public records request for vouchers submitted in the past two years, and found that in addition to regular meetings, Ellis and Peterson had been collecting compensation for doing office visits, preparing for meetings, reviewing materials and checking emails.
A Kenmore resident for 50 years, Ellis originally joined the Northshore Fire Department Board of Commissioners in 1988 and served through 2011. He returned to the board in January 2016 after being re-elected to a six-year term that runs through 2021.
Ellis said he used his many “office visits” to catch up on things he missed during his five-year break from the commission, but told the Reporter after the meeting that it was “out of line.”
He said during the meeting that the fire department is regularly audited by the state and excessive compensation was “never mentioned,” and mentioned his record of service on the commission. Ellis has also served on the Northshore Utility District’s board of commissioners for more than 40 years.
Verlinda said that maxing out on vouchers is “not illegal, but not morally right.”
Though Verlinda said the fire commission meetings usually draw about one or two people, a crowd of about 20 gathered for the April 3 meeting, many of them at Verlinda’s invitation. Ellis and Peterson said during the meeting that they didn’t appreciate the public airing of allegations against them.
“To insinuate in front of all of these people and to the public that I misused funds … is incorrect,” Peterson said.
Maehren, who has served on the commission since 2001, said that the group has “some culpability for past practices” and had to make sure that the “failures of the past don’t reoccur.”
“When we’re taking money from the public, that’s hard-earned money,” Maehren said. “For us to try to hold members of the department accountable for spending money wisely and then have people from our own body take advantage of the system to collect money … is personally offensive to me.”
According to the commission’s policy, compensation vouchers must be reviewed and approved by a majority of the board. The board had been placing the voucher approval with the rest of the payroll under its consent agenda.
The consent agenda usually consists of many items that are all passed with a single motion, which made the vouchers almost “invisible” to the commission and public, Maehren said.
Maehren and Verlinda worked together on a new, more specific policy for commissioner compensation that they said more closely mirrors that of boards in the surrounding area. It would have limited commissioners to one day of “meeting preparation” per regular board meeting. The commission usually meets twice a month.
Board chair Carolyn Armanini agrees that the board had “failed,” but believed that separating the voucher approval from the consent agenda and adding language that requires board approval of “reasonable” compensation requests would be sufficient to address the problem. She said the board needed a “change in procedure” and “change in behavior.”
“It gives us an opportunity to police ourselves,” she said. “‘Reasonable’ is a legal term and it also will become a cultural standard, and I’ve already seen changes … If it’s not working, we can look at strengthening it.”
Maehren and Verlinda thought the “reasonable” piece wasn’t clear or concise enough to be a board policy, and though Maehren said that he would like to see the group reach a 5-0 consensus on the issue, the vote ended up splitting 3-2 in favor of Armanini’s proposal.
Verlinda said that the board needed to set higher standards to restore the public’s trust, and was disappointed in the vote.
The board then went on to review each commissioners’ compensation requests individually. Ellis hadn’t submitted any for March. Armanini and Peterson’s vouchers were approved 3-2, and Verlinda and Maehren’s passed 4-0, with Ellis abstaining, “considering the duress under which this is being handled,” he said.
Verlinda announced after the board’s discussion that he would file an ethics complaint because he believes that commissioners “improperly received compensation,” and because the board hadn’t been following its own policy.
“They’re not trying to justify it as a valid use of taxpayer dollars,” Verlinda told the Reporter. “They’ve just done it for so long, and no one’s called them on it.”
See www.northshorefire.com for more on the board of commissioners.