During a special meeting Friday night, Snohomish County Fire District 1 Commissioners David Chan and Bob Meador were called out for racially-charged remarks from an earlier meeting that were captured on the district’s own video.
An effort to pass a resolution reprimanding the two commissioners failed on a 2-2 vote, with one of the board’s five commissioners absent, but the issue is expected to be taken up again during the next regularly scheduled commission meeting March 21.
At issue was a conversation recorded on video during a break in the March 7 commission meeting, when Chan and Meador — not aware that the microphones were on — were heard discussing the challenges related to hiring paramedics.
“Could we hire a Mexican paramedic?” Chan asked. “I dunno,” Meador replied, laughing. “It’s cheaper,” Chan responded, also laughing. “I don’t wanna,” Meador said. “I don’t want those immigrants. They can’t do the job.”
Videos of regular commission meetings are posted to the Fire District 1 website, and members of Firefighters Local 1828 said they became aware of “racially insensitive” remarks made by Chan and Meador on the March 7 meeting video. At 9 p.m. Wednesday, March 15, Fire District 1 Chief Brad Reading received a text from union leadership requesting a meeting the next morning. After Reading and Fire District 1 human resources staff reviewed the video Thursday, they contacted Fire District 1 Commission Chair Jim McGaughey, who said in an interview Friday afternoon with the My Neighborhood News Network that the report was “a real shock.”
“We don’t tolerate that type of behavior or dialogue ever,” McGaughey said. “I don’t care where we’re at, even if we’re in a closed room.”
After seeing the video, fire district officials also immediately began reaching out to mayors of the cities that Fire District 1 contracts with, including Brier, Edmonds and Mountlake Terrace, so that they would hear the news first-hand, McGaughey said. The mayor of Lynnwood was also contacted, as Fire District 1 and Lynnwood Fire currently have a joint administrative staff.
McGaughey said that Chan and Meador were notified, and a special meeting was called to address the issue at 6 p.m. Friday.
The commission could have taken one of four actions against Chan and Meador, ranging from censoring the commissioners, to a verbal reprimand, to a formal reprimand and finally a request that the commissioners consider resigning. (As elected officials, commissioners can’t be forced to resign.)
During the meeting’s public comment period, Firefighters Local 1828 Vice President Rob Gullickson read a statement calling for the commissioners to submit their resignations.
After an hour-long meeting that started with a request by Chan and Meador to hold a closed-door executive session — which did not move forward following a 2-2 vote — Commissioner Jim Kenny moved to pass a resolution issuing the commissioners a written reprimand. That motion also failed on a 2-2 vote. The fifth commissioner, Richard Schrock, was absent.
Voting for the resolution to reprimand were Kenny and McGaughey. Voting against the resolution were Chan and Meador, both of whom asked that the matter be postponed until March 21, when the full five-member commission could take up the matter.
Chan and Meador both apologized for their remarks, describing the conversation as “banter” that wasn’t meant to offend anyone.
“I have not a history of any kind of prejudice against anybody, especially Mexicans,” Meador said, noting that he has five Hispanic grandchildren. Meador, who has been on the Fire District 1 board for 12 years and is a former Lynnwood Fire Chief, also pointed to his long record of public service.
Chan, who is serving his second six-year board term, became emotional as he described his own background as an immigrant, having come to the U.S. from China 45 years ago. “I know exactly what an immigrant experiences,” Chan said. “After 45 years, people still mention to me, ‘This Chinese guy. This Chinese commissioner.’ No, I’m a commissioner for all of you. I am an American with a Chinese heritage.”
Chan also directly addressed members of Firefighters Local 1828 attending Friday night’s meeting, asking them to consider the context of the conversation. “To us at that time, it was meant to be kind of a bantering back and forth, kind of an inside joke,” Chan said. “We did not say it with malice or hate.”
But Kenny said the board “can’t just walk away,” adding that it would “let the community look at what we’ve done and say, ‘they didn’t try to do anything.'”
“These were offensive comments, and there needs to be some sanction from the board,” Kenny said.
Kenny also said he was disappointed that Chan and Meador weren’t willing to vote for the reprimand. “They have apologized but part of apologizing is making amends and accepting a written reprimand so we can move forward.”
“If this motion fails, so be it. I’ve tried,” Kenny added. “I think we need to do something official and get this issue behind us. Not wait for another day and another meeting and it gets watered down and never comes back to the light of day.”
One of those in the room taking exception to Chan’s and Meador’s remarks was Moi Castellon, a nine-year Fire District firefighter/EMT who works out of Station 20 in Esperance, and who happens to be Mexican-American. “They say Mexicans can’t do the work,” Castellon said after the meeting ended. “That to me is particularly offensive because clearly I’ve been here doing the work for the past nine years.”
“In my opinion, commissioners like that should not be governing our fire department,” Castellon added. “It doesn’t provide the right image to our community.”
During an interview prior to Friday’s meeting, McGaughey stressed that Fire District 1 “encourages support and diversity. We’ve always had that philosophy and we’ve had training for that,” he said. “So in light with all the things going on in the nation right now with immigration and Mexico and the wall and all that…this puts us out there with all the negativity, and now we’re being looked upon as a negative backer for what’s going on also, and we’re not. We’re not that kind of organization.”
— Story and photos by Teresa Wippel with reporting by Natalie Covate