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Do fire candidates come with conflicts?

Questions of conflict of interest follow both of the candidates to succeed Alan Corner as Bainbridge fire commissioner.

But both believe the conflict situations are relatively insignificant, and would not prevent them from serving.

In the case of James Johnson, his wife Diane is a receptionist at the Madison Avenue fire station, and a member of the the local union that is trying to negotiate a contract with the district.

“Anything involving her I couldn’t vote on,” Johnson said Monday. “But that’s a small, minute part of being a commissioner.”

Washington state law prohibits public employees from benefitting, directly or indirectly, from contracts that they are involved in making.

Both the full-time firefighters and the clerical staff are represented by Local 4303 of the International Association of Fire Fighters. The local is trying to negotiate separate contracts for each group.

Some negotiating issues like pay scales are different for the career firefighters than for the clerical staff, fire department Director Ken Guy said, because the job descriptions are so different.

But other issues, like health and benefit packages, are the same for both groups, Guy said.

Johnson, who has been endorsed by the union, believes he could function effectively as a commissioner despite the situations in which he cannot vote.

“I can go to the meetings where collective bargaining issues are discussed, and I can participate fully in the discussions, but I can’t vote on certain matters,” he said.

He said he could also not discuss anything that came up in executive session with his wife.

“I don’t intend on discussing commission business at home,” he said. “Anything that happens in executive session, I can’t bring up.”

Johnson’s opponent, Seattle firefighter Scott Gray, is a volunteer firefighter with the Bainbridge department, and is a member of the IAFF union, although not a member of the Bainbridge local.

Under state law, fire commissioners may serve as unpaid volunteer firefighters only by a unanimous vote of the other members of the board.

Gray said that with the time commitment required to be a commissioner on top of his job in Seattle, he is not entirely sure he would want to continue as a volunteer on Bainbridge.

“The real conflict I see is that it creates an odd chain of command,” he said. “There is the potential I could be working for the fire chief one night, and then the next night be making a decision on whether he stays or goes.”

Gray said that if elected, he intends to discuss the situation with operations chief Jim Walkowski, and would not seek to continue as a volunteer if there were any reluctance on Walkowski’s part.Guy said is it fairly common for a full-time firefighter in one locale to serve as a commissioner in another district, and for departments to have volunteer firefighters on their board.

“The role of the commissioners is not to make operational decisions, but to set budgets and make long-range plans,” he said. “I don’t see Gray’s situation as a major conflict.”

Former fire commissioner Sam Camasi said both situations present conflicts of interest, and said the ability to manage a conflict situation depends upon the individual.

“I don’t know either of the candidates, so I can’t comment specifically,” he said. “But the first step in handling a conflict is acknowledging that it exists. If either of the candidates is trying to deny the conflict or play it down, then I would question their ability to handle it.”

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