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Thursday, November 21, 2019  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Spokane Valley fire commissioner candidates clash over communication, fire commissioner leadership

Challenger Bradley Mertens, left, is running against incumbent Patrick Burch for Spokane Valley Fire Commission, Position 1. (Candidates / Courtesy)
Challenger Bradley Mertens, left, is running against incumbent Patrick Burch for Spokane Valley Fire Commission, Position 1. (Candidates / Courtesy)

Candidate Bradley Mertens hopes to use his front-line firefighting experience to lead on the Spokane Valley Fire Commission and make sure firefighters feel heard. Incumbent Patrick Burch said commissioners shouldn’t micromanage the department, but lead and write a budget that serves taxpayers.

Mertens said he hopes to improve communication between the commission and the firefighters, because he feels like a lot of the current communication is between the board and the fire department chief.

He added that his experience as a firefighter for Fire District 8, which sometimes serves alongside Spokane Valley Fire Department, would give him insight into what firefighters go through every day.

“I work with these guys on the front line,” he said. “In that situation I wouldn’t be in my role as a commissioner, but (serving with) brother and sister firefighters, and as a union member.”

Mertens said that experience would prepare him to ask informed questions when developing policies that affect firefighters and help write budgets that are fiscally responsible.

Burch, a former industrial engineer and financial controller for Boeing, said commissioners don’t need firefighting experience to be a member of the board. He said the board is tasked with hiring a chief who manages the day-to-day operation, writes a budget and makes policy decisions.

“The role of a fire commissioner is a lot like the school board,” Burch said. “The day-to-day ground-level communication, that’s why we have a professional chief. … We don’t need to get into the nitty-gritty. If I was on school board, I wouldn’t go into a classroom and tell a teacher how to teach.”

Burch said commissioners do talk to fire district employees and they sometimes listen to presentations from firefighters before approving equipment purchases. He said commissioners plan to visit fire stations in pairs as well.

“We are always open to communication with firefighters,” he said.

Burch is the current chairman of the commission, but likely would not retain that position if re-elected because commissioners can not lead the board for more than two consecutive years.

During his tenure on the board, the department has retained its Center for Public Safety Excellence accreditation, and attained a best-in-Eastern Washington fire insurance rating level 2, which can mean lower insurance premiums for residents and business owners in the city. Burch said he was pleased with the direction of the department.

This year Local 876, the union representing Spokane Valley Firefighters, endorsed both Mertens and Mike Kester, another challenger for the fire commission who is running against longtime fire commissioner Ron Schmidt.

Union Vice President George Hedebeck said the union felt that the current board of commissioners was often siding with the fire department administration over the union and firefighters.

“It feels like the board is rather one-sided and not representing the full package of stakeholders,” Hedebeck said.

Hedebeck said the board should represent and communicate with taxpayers, employees, the administration and the union, not just the fire department’s leadership.

Burch said now that the board has contracts with the fire unions, communication with firefighters likely will improve. He said the board’s primary responsibility is to represent taxpayers, however.

Mertens said communication issues are among the reasons he ran.

He criticized Burch and the board, saying they should be more transparent, spend more time explaining why they vote the way they do and said meetings should be held after many constituents get off work. Meetings are held on the second and fourth Mondays of the month at 4 p.m.

Burch said the board has discussed moving the meetings to more accessible locations to make them easier to attend, but has not considered changing the time.

He said when something important comes up, many members of the publicattend and offer testimony.

The Spokane Valley Fire Commission oversees a $37.5 million budget and about 200 employees. The board is five members, and each commissioner is paid about $12,200 a year.

The Spokane Valley Fire Department serves Spokane Valley, Liberty Lake, Millwood, Otis Orchards and Pasadena Park, as well as unincorporated areas of Spokane County.

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