Council Reconsiders Splitting Department Of Public Safety

Dec 20, 2018

Under the new legislation, Unalaska will no longer have a Public-Safety director/police chief in charge of all local law enforcement. Instead, the city will have one police chief and one fire chief. Both will run their own departments and report to the city manager.
Credit Berett Wilber/KUCB

After passing an ordinance Dec. 11 to split Unalaska's Department of Public Safety into two entities, the City Council is meeting to reconsider its decision.

Thursday's special meeting stems from a request from Vice Mayor Dennis Robinson who has concerns about the cost of the project.

"Everything else we do we plan meticulously except for this," Robinson said. "I'm frustrated at it."

Robinson voted for the split last week and says he will continue to support it, but first he wants to know how much the project will cost. Robinson says he requested the meeting be in January to allow the city time to evaluate the cost of the project; he doesn't think a special meeting was necessary.

"I thought a month, given the holidays, would have been ample time," Robinson said. "After all they've had it for five months. It could have been looked at quite extensively over five months and [the city] could have had an entire plan formed [for] a transition period -- because there is going to be a transition period. It’s not going to happen overnight."

The Dec. 11 vote to separate fire and emergency medical services from police was 5-1. Councilor Shari Coleman was the sole dissenting vote.

At the time, Mayor Frank Kelty said he was happy to see an end to the long debate over restructuring.

"This has been a very contentious issue for two years," Kelty said. "It should've never taken this long to get this thing done. I think this will work well for both departments."

Under the legislation, Unalaska will no longer have a Public Safety director/police chief in charge of all local law enforcement. Instead, the city will have one police chief and one fire chief — both running their own departments, and both reporting to the city manager.

Councilor Dave Gregory called the change a "positive step forward." The former fire chief has long argued that the previous structure made firefighters play second fiddle to the police force, hurting staff morale and retention.

He said independence will give the fire chief more power to address those issues, while allowing each department to focus on its own expertise.

"It allows the fire chief to be a fire chief — to be able to manage their own department," Gregory said. "It's not going to cost a lot of money. I worked in that building for 15 years. We can figure this out no problem."

Gregory's financial comments came after Councilors Coleman and Robinson criticized the city manager for advocating for restructuring without a projected cost.

While Robinson ultimately sided with the majority, Coleman pushed to postpone the issue indefinitely. The motion failed, and the former volunteer firefighter cast the sole dissenting vote. 

"There's really been no expense layout," Coleman said. "I can't move forward with this as it stands, because we have nothing. There is nothing in place, and there has been very little research and work on that end."

City Manager Thomas E. Thomas recently created a transition team to plan out the short-term steps for separating Public Safety.

As of last week, the team has only met once, but Thomas said he wanted the council to approve the idea before zeroing in on the details. He also pointed out that the ordinance prohibits spending beyond the existing budget for fiscal year 2019, meaning any further expenditures would require council approval.

Acting Public Safety Director Jennifer Shockley didn't comment at the meeting. But in an interview with KUCB, she said officials were "putting the cart before the horse" in voting without a concrete target date or transition plan.

"We've all been living with so much uncertainty already at Public Safety that I don't think going forward without a plan is fair to the people who do the work," Shockley said. "And going forward without a plan is certainly not what I expect, as a community member, from my council members."

Several firefighters expressed support for separation last year. But overall, Public Safety employees — from corrections and police to fire and administration — have voiced a variety of different opinions. Fire Chief Ramona Thompson has declined to comment.

While the council is scheduled to reevaluate its decision Thursday, Robinson doesn't think his proposition will have much support.

"I've been a council member for a number of years, I can count my votes. It will clearly be voted down for reconsideration to provide numbers," Robinson said. "I find that it is unfortunate. It’s wrong on the council’s part to push something like this forward without knowing the budgetary impacts it's going to have."