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Fire chief moving up, director out

Executive Director Ken Guy will leave the Bainbridge Island Fire Department, after fire commissioners Wednesday eliminated his job and made fire chief the top position in the organization.

The fire board voted 2-1 Wednesday to return to a “traditional” fire department model, with an administrative fire chief heading all operations and answering directly to the board. The executive directorship was axed in favor of a “business manager” position, to provide staff support to the chief.

Commissioner Glen Tyrrell cast the deciding vote, swayed by the chance to make the department’s top post an emergency responder.

“I do believe that the reorganization is going to be in the best interest of the (department) long-term, and enable us to better serve the community,” Tyrrell said.

Since 1988, the department has been helmed by an executive director, who has handled business and finance, personnel issues and intergovernmental affairs. Guy has held the post since 1996.

“I’m disappointed in the board’s decision, but they are the legislative body of the department,” Guy said in an interview Thursday. “They’re doing what they think is best for the department...I think it’s a signal for me that I should move on.”

Fire Chief Jim Walkowski is the presumptive favorite to move into the new top position, although qualifications have yet to be formalized.

The move may also bring creation of a new “operations chief” post, for a deeper command structure to meet emergency responses.

The board’s vote capped several months of study by commissioners, and lobbying by career firefighters and volunteers. Most firefighters were unequivocal in supporting a return to the traditional model, and want to see Walkowski elevated to the department’s top spot.

Longtime volunteer Jim Dow called the vote a “watershed” opportunity to let Walkowski become “a great chief” for the department.

Dow said firefighters regularly take ideas for improvements to Walkowski, but “there’s always a qualifier – ‘I have to take this and run it by Ken.’” That chain of command, Dow said, led to “frustration and dampened enthusiasm” within the department.

Firefighters also disliked the fact that Guy, a career public administrator, did not have a background in the fire service.

Commissioner Jim Johnson, a former firefighter, supported the traditional model; Commissioner Doug Johnson said it would cost more without improving the department.

That drew the rebuke of firefighters massed in the gallery, several of whom accused Johnson of ignoring their views.

The meeting also included a presentation by Bob Fortner of an organization calling itself the Bainbridge Resource Group, which has been studying local taxation issues.

Fortner urged the fire board to consider using low-interest bonds to finance such long-term capital projects as fire hall expansions, rather than paying for projects out of current revenues.

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The Bainbridge Island Fire Department’s 2003 budget shows the executive director making about $92,000, and the fire chief $90,000.

Under the reorganization approved Wednesday, the chief’s salary will be hiked to $93,000 in 2004, with a new business manager post paying $88,000 per year.

The executive director position is eliminated, but with the fire chief moving into administration, a new “operations chief” post is expected to be created, with a salary of $88,000.

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