Feet to the fire: Fire commissioners admit wrongdoing after racial remarks

By Brian Soergel | Mar 23, 2017
Photo by: Brian Soergel Fire District 1 Commissioners David Chan, left, and Bob Meador heard from community members after they were caught making racially insensitive remarks.

Two Snohomish County Fire District 1 commissioners have apologized but are refusing a growing public clamor to resign after a video surfaced of them laughing while making racially tinged remarks at a recent meeting.

Fire commissioners on Tuesday, March 21, voted 4-0 to reprimand David Chan and Bob Meador. The 4-0 vote included assent from both Chan and Meador, who agreed to write apologies to residents and employees of the district, refrain from similar communications in the future, attend diversity training and to consider resignation.

“It’s regrettable these comments were made,” Commission Chairman Jim McGaughey said. “They do not reflect the values of our organization or our employees.”

Since both appear not to consider resigning an option, the only way Chan and Meador could lose their seats is through a recall or the ballot box.

But Edmonds residents have no say.

That’s because the city has contracted with FD1 since 2010 for fire and emergency medical services. Only those who live in the district’s service area in unincorporated Snohomish County have voting power.

The commissioners do, however, have power to control what happens at Edmonds’ three fire stations. On Jan. 24, in a 3-1 vote, they voted to approve a revised contract with the city to reduce the number of firefighters from 11 to nine, but ensuring that each station has a paramedic.

The comments

It was during a March 7 commission meeting that a microphone captured an exchange between Meador and Chan during a break. The commissioners had been discussing recruiting and hiring issues:

Meador: I’m talking about training people. You got to have the skills. You got to have to want the job. We’re willing to pay a lot of money.

Chan: Could we hire a Mexican paramedic?

Meador: I dunno (laughs).

Chan: (Laughs) It’s cheaper.

Meador: I don’t wanna. I don’t want those immigrants. They can’t do the job.

Chan: (Laughs) It’s cheaper.

The remarks came to light when Snohomish County Professional Firefighters Local 1828 – which represents more than 200 firefighters and paramedics – distributed the recording to media, and Local 1828 President Thad Hovis released the following statement:

“On Wednesday March 15, 2017, we were made aware of a video of two Snohomish County Fire District 1 commissioners making racially insensitive remarks during a commissioner meeting. We requested a meeting with the fire chief, board chair and Human Resources director on Thursday and presented the video to them so they could decide how to move forward.

“The professional firefighters of Snohomish County are a diverse group of men and women that work to provide service to the culturally diverse citizenry of south Snohomish County, and by no means do their comments reflect our values.”

On March 17, the commissioners held a special meeting, where Commissioner Jim Kenny proposed a resolution asking Meador and Chan to write apologies and attend a diversity course. He also asked them to consider resigning their elected positions.

The commission faced a vote on reprimanding Meador and Chan, but it died 2-2. Meador and Chan voted against disciplining themselves, while Kenny and Commission Chairman Jim McGaughey voted for it.

Commissioner Richard Schrock, who would have cast the deciding vote, was absent. “I had a previous commitment related to a personal family matter and could not attend Friday night,” he said.

On Tuesday, both Chan and Meador said they voted against reprimanding themselves because they needed more time to consider it.

“I was blindsided. I did not express myself very well,” said Chan, 65, who spoke for 25 minutes and at one point fought back tears. “Commissioner Meador has a dry sense of humor. So he always has a Stephen Colbert kind of thing. I know he wasn’t being serious. I’m an immigrant myself. I know he was kidding. He has a son-in-law who’s Mexican and has five grandchildren who are Mexican. It was a perfect storm – the laughing and the comments.”

Chan said the last week has been stressful for him; he struggled to find sleep and thought his life might be ruined.

“After looking at video, I admitted, Oh my God, it’s terrible. A terrible mistake. I know the power of the media. I had friends who called me who didn’t even know I was a fire commissioner, asking me what’s happening?”

He added that he hopes people realize he made a mistake and is not labeled as racist. “How do I become a better commissioner?” he asked those who were to speak during the meeting’s public comment period.

“A better person? An old dog can still learn new tricks.”

Chan, who is up for re-election in November for a third six-year term, emphasized that he would not resign. “I will submit to be re-elected. The voters will tell me yes or no.”

Meador, 73, spoke for about three minutes.

“Up until this point, I’ve had an unblemished record on this type of issue,” he said. “There’s a model I live by: The only excuse is there’s no excuse. There’s words on the record that are inappropriate and out of context in the sense that they are fragments. But at this point, I take full responsibility for the words that were recorded. They were out of context and not what I meant, but at this point it’s time to move on and have the public weigh in on this issue.”

Weigh in they did.

Public comment

Four Edmonds citizens voiced their opinions. Peter Gibson said that “I do not believe you represent our firefighters and our values,” while Josh Blake commented on the two commissioners’ “disrespectful behavior and attitude.” Laura Johnson said the commissioners were unwilling to take responsibility for their actions. “A racist joke is still racism,” she said.

Former Edmonds Mayor Mike Cooper, himself a former firefighter, spoke first.

“When I heard the demeaning and insensitive remarks made by Commissioners Meador and Chan, I was deeply disappointed and troubled. When I heard the excuses, I was angered and embarrassed,” he read from a prepared statement.

“I have known both these commissioners for many years, which makes their lack of judgment even more troubling. Are these men racists? Probably not. Have they been insensitive and dishonored the oath they took? Absolutely.

“Has the president said worse? Yes. Was it locker room banter? Probably. However, jock talk is often not appropriate in the privacy of the locker room, and is even less appropriate by a public official in public. You are held at a high standard, and the public deserves better.

“Commissioner Meador, Commissioner Chan, you have let the public down and disgraced your position. Your demeaning remarks have been hurtful to all members of the department and left a gaping wound in the Fire District 1 organization, with much healing to be done to regain trust at all levels. Please do the honorable thing and resign tonight, and leave the building so healing can begin.”

 

Comments (0)
If you wish to comment, please login.