Merger plans crop up in discussion of chief hirings

A contract to recruit new fire and police chiefs led to a discussion of talks about combining rural and city fire departments.

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WALLA WALLA -- A City Council member criticized a $48,000 contract to recruit new police and fire chiefs, noting that in recent months the city Fire Department and Walla Walla County Rural Fire District 4 have informally discussed a merger.

"I don't think this is the time to be spending $48,000 to hire two chiefs when we haven't done our homework," City Council member Shane Laib said, shortly before casting the one dissenting vote against a contract with the recruiting firm of Bob Murray & Associates. All Council members were present at the Wednesday night meeting.

In recent months, the possibility of merging the fire districts through the formation of a Regional Fire Authority, also known as RFA, has been discussed.

Laib questioned the effect those discussions would have on applicants, and if the city should also consider a similar merger for law enforcement.

"It may give some of the better qualified candidates a pause for consideration," City Manager Nabiel Shawa said, in response to questions from the Council about the possibility of a merger. "As I understand, these attempts have been made in the past and I don't think it will have a detrimental effect on the pool."

Numerous merger attempts have occurred over the years, officials say, but the latest attempt is the first since the state Legislature approved the use of RFAs.

Past looks at mergers were more along the lines of contractual arrangements, Fire District 4 Chief Rocky Eastman said.

"Sometimes there are going to be benefits and sometimes (an RFA merger) may not be beneficial. And I want to make this very clear, what we have talked about over the last few months has been very informal ... just to look at it to see if it is even financially feasible," Eastman said.

Hastening the vote was a city deadline to hire a new fire chief. Civil service bylaws state the position can be held on an interim basis for no more than one year, and interim Chief Bob Yancey will hit that mark March 1.

Current discussions on the RFA are on hold until the November election, and an RFA vote by the public is at least 18 months away, Yancey said.

"It goes to a vote of the people, which means you have to have the plan in place that answers all the questions to the public ... I think it would be a stretch to get this to the voters by (March 1)" Yancey said.

Before the RFA could go to voters, it would have to be approved by the Council and Fire District 4 commissioners.

Alfred Diaz can be reached at alfreddiaz@wwub.com or 526-8325.

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