Divided Council Advances Plan To Split Unalaska's Public Safety Department

Nov 29, 2018

The new ordinance would separate the Department of Public Safety into two standalone departments: one for fire and emergency medical services, and another for police, corrections, and dispatch.
Credit Berett Wilber/KUCB

Legislation to split Unalaska's Department of Public Safety is moving forward, despite the fact that city officials remain deeply divided over the issue.

This week, City Manager Thomas E. Thomas presented the City Council with an ordinance that would separate Public Safety into two standalone departments: one for fire and emergency medical services, and another for police, corrections, and dispatch.

The change would put the fire chief under supervision of the city manager rather than the police chief, who would also lose the joint title of public safety director.  

Thomas argued that restructuring would have a number of benefits: Helping him to oversee city employees more efficiently, giving the fire staff control over its own budget and programs, and allowing the city to hire a police chief after a long interim period.

Most of all, though, he said it's a way to finish the years-long debate over how to improve morale and retention at Public Safety.

"The purpose of this is to try to move the organization forward," said Thomas. "And I hope the council can make a decision one way or another, because the police department needs to have leadership. I think that continuing to drag it out any further could be potentially harmful."

With a 4-2 vote, councilors advanced the ordinance to a second and final reading on Dec. 11. James Fitch, Dave Gregory, Roger Rowland, and Alejandro "Bong" Tungul supported the measure, emphasizing that most employees' responsibilities will remain the same.

"I think this is going to be a positive change for both departments," said Gregory, a former fire chief. "They're getting so big that we need professionals leading each one. If this goes through, both the police chief and fire chief will be happy with the result."

The proposal met strong resistance from the other two councilors, Shari Coleman and Vice Mayor Dennis Robinson. 

Coleman, a former firefighter, said there's no evidence that it will make Unalaska any safer.

"When someone calls 911, they want their fire put out, they want that criminal arrested, whatever it may be. I have seen nothing in all of this that says our service is going to improve," she said. "I'm not sitting here trying to exchange a Chevy for a Ford, but that's what we’re doing here."

Credit City of Unalaska

Robinson also criticized Thomas' plan for a lack of information. He said the city manager needs to explain in detail how he would implement the transition — and pay for it. It's still unclear whether restructuring would require significant changes to Public Safety's building.

"At this point, we have absolutely no idea what it's going to cost," said Robinson. "Those things all have to get done — I'm talking about all the little nuts and bolts that build the foundation of a department. If the council passes this, it's fiscally irresponsible."

In response, Thomas said he needs councilors to sign off of the idea before he can zero in on the particulars. And if he gets their approval, he argued that most of those particulars should be at his discretion as the city manager. 

Councilor Roger Rowland agreed.

"We [the council] don't know every single thing of what's going to happen," said Rowland. "The city dock, for example. A $40 million project. Yeah, it had a total price tag, but we weren't privy to every little thing that was going to happen. That's the contractor's responsibility — to figure all that out. And in this case, our city manager is going to be our contractor."

Acting Police Chief Jennifer Shockley said she wanted to refrain from taking sides, but she did argue that councilors should be thoughtful before approving any restructuring.

"I don't really have a vested interest in whether we are one or two [departments]," said Shockley. "But I have a very strong interest in the well-being of the people who work for me. I think it's a disservice to them to not have a plan for this change before you vote on the change."

Several firefighters expressed support for separation last fall. 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.