South County Fire chair resigns, claiming other commissioners violated open meeting rules

South County Fire Commissioner Micah Rowland

South County Fire Commissioner Micah Rowland resigned his position as board chair earlier this month after accusing five of the seven voting fire commissioners of violating Washington’s Open Public Meeting (OPMA) laws in an effort to oust him.

During the April 2 South County Fire meeting, Rowland read a statement and moved for a resolution to censure commissioners Jim Kenny, Mark Laurence, David Chan, Chris Teofilak, and Edward Widdis for violating the OPMA rules. 

The only commissioners not mentioned in the censure, besides Rowland himself, were the non-voting liaisons: Jesse Hoffman of the City of Mountlake Terrace, Paula Swisher of the City of Brier, and Michael Fearnehough, former vice chair.

Fearnehough offered his resignation for unrelated personal reasons in a letter that Rowland read during the April 2 meeting.

Rowland and Fearnehough were reelected to their leadership positions by a unanimous vote of fellow commissioners in January.

South County Fire is a regional fire authority (RFA) established in 2017 by voters in unincorporated southwest Snohomish County and the City of Lynnwood. Since then, voters in three cities have approved annexation into the RFA: Mill Creek, Brier and Mountlake Terrace. South County Fire also provides fire and emergency medical services to the City of Edmonds under a service contract.

In an interview with the My Neighborhood News Network April 8, Rowland said that he proposed a resolution to censure the five fire commissioners because Kenny, Laurence, Chan, Teofilak and Widdis held serial meetings, which violates RCW 42.30.020 (3) of the OPMA.

“Any of the commissioners could have spoken against it [the censure motion] or requested an amendment,” Rowland said. 

The motion died for a lack of a second.

The OPMA describes serial meetings as those in which the majority of an elected body communicates on a topic outside of a public meeting. This happens when Person 1 speaks with Person 2 on a subject. Person 2 then speaks with Person 3 and Person 4. Person 4 then speaks with Person 5.

Even if one or two of these people do not provide their input, they are now a part of the communication chain because they have received the message, whether it is in person, via phone, text, email or physical media such as paper.

South County Fire Commission Chair Jim Kenny

After Rowland resigned as chair and left the meeting April 2, the remaining commissioners unanimously elected longtime Commissioner Jim Kenny to serve as chair. Laurence was elected vice chair. 

Rowland was appointed to the South County Fire board in March 2022 to fill a vacant seat and was elected by voters in November 2023. While he resigned his position as chair, he still remains as an elected fire commissioner.

During a phone interview with the My Neighborhood News Network, Kenny – who serves as a prosecutor for the City of Seattle –  said he was unaware of any conversations among commissioners about ousting Rowland until the April 2 meeting.

Kenny explained that with a commission of seven voting members, two members can speak together about board business and that “three is pushing it.”

Rowland said that Fire Commissioner Ed Widdis informed him of his potential removal on March 26, about one hour before commissioners were scheduled to appear at an Edmonds City Council meeting to hear an annual report on fire and emergency medical services for the City of Edmonds. Widdis is a former South County fire chief who was elected as a commissioner in November 2023. 

“I was pressured both at [the Edmonds] meeting and during multiple subsequent phone calls to resign ahead of the [April 2 South County Fire] meeting,” Rowland said.

According to Rowland, the phone calls demanding his resignation were from Commissioner Mark Laurence, who claimed to have spoken with all the commissioners except Fearnehough. Rowland also said Laurence told him that Commissioner Chris Teofilak was to push for a discussion regarding Rowland’s resignation as part of the April 2 South County Fire meeting agenda.

Rowland said he contacted Teofilak to find out what the issues were. In response, Teofilak suggested Rowland resign, adding he was not interested in discussing the problems, Rowland said.

During one phone call, Rowland said Laurence told him that if Kenny didn’t work out as chair “they’ll [the commissioners will] replace him.”

Kenny confirmed that a discussion regarding replacing Rowland was planned for the April 2 meeting, but it did not happen because Rowland left. 

However, he also said that matters such as removing a chair is not something they would put on the agenda.

But Rowland said that OPMA laws require elected officials to have public discussions or executive sessions to talk about such removals, and a commission member undergoing a private executive review can request that the session be held publicly. 

Rowland also said he was not given reasons for his removal. In a phone interview, Kenny would only say Rowland “wasn’t a good fit,” and declined to provide additional details.

Commissioners Mark Laurence, David Chan, Chris Teofilak, Ed Widdis and Michael Fearnehough did not return messages requesting their comments before publication.

— By Rick Sinnett

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