Unalaska Will Have Separate Fire And Police Departments, Following 5-1 Vote To Restructure DPS

Dec 12, 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 spending five decades as a consolidated agency, Unalaska's Department of Public Safety has been split into two entities.

On Tuesday, the City Council passed an ordinance — despite concerns about cost — creating two new standalone departments: one for fire and emergency medical services, and another for police, corrections, and dispatch.

The 5-1 vote signaled an end to the council's long debate over restructuring — an end that Mayor Frank Kelty said he's happy to reach.

"This has been a very contentious issue for two years," said Kelty. "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," said Gregory. "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 Shari Coleman and Dennis 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," said Coleman. "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.

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," said Shockley. "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

With the restructuring now underway, the city is expected to launch the search for a full-time police chief. Shockley has filled the role in an interim capacity since former chief Mike Holman retired in January. At that time, Shockley said she would apply for the job. But when asked this week, she declined to comment.

The city is also moving ahead with an assessment of Public Safety's 30-year-old building.

Councilors unanimously approved a $97,000 contract for Jensen Yorba Lott, a Juneau-based design firm hired to analyze the building's usage before making recommendations to address issues of limited space, outdated equipment, and confidentiality concerns.

City officials said they'll probably consider an expansion and renovation to the current building or construction of a new building in addition to retrofitting the existing structure. The assessment will be presented before the council, which will have to approve the plan and its expenses.