The Ocean Shores Professional Firefighters union, IAFF Local 2109, last week endorsed the re-election bid of Mayor Crystal Dingler. Her opponent, City Council member Susan Conniry, criticized the move in comments to The North Coast News.
The announcement on their Facebook page said the union “is proud to endorse Crystal Dingler for re-election as Mayor of Ocean Shores.
“She led our city through the recession, and prioritized public safety. She has high standards and has worked to improve our equipment, training, and staffing. She cares about our work environment, and our ability to provide exceptional EMS care and Fire protection to the City of Ocean Shores.
“Given her proven track record, and extensive experience, we know Crystal Dingler will continue to make public safety a priority, and that is why we support her!”
Dingler commented that she is “honored that the IAFF Local 2109 endorsed my candidacy for Mayor.
“I sincerely value the hard work they put in to provide such outstanding service to our community and District 7. Although our positions as management and employees sometimes result in differences, I believe we have a healthy and mutually respectful working relationship.”
As did Dingler, Conniry sent her comments by email:
“It’s not surprising that the union would endorse a candidate for mayor who has the power to influence their personal income and benefits,” she wrote. “It’s a business decision. Though it may not respect the needs of the citizens they serve, you can’t fault their logic.
“What is surprising is their unprofessional choice of not even approaching me, as a candidate who currently holds the majority vote, to ask my views, how I would negotiate with them on behalf of the city, and how I envision our long-term relationship.”
Union President Corey Kuhl said, “Our choice to endorse Crystal as a union was solely based on our years of working with her, and her working with us and caring about us and putting public safety at the top of her priority list throughout her two terms.” An OSFD captain who has been with the department since 2007, Kuhl added, “It hasn’t been all rainbows and butterflies – she has high standards, she’s a tough negotiator and asks for a very high level of performance.”
Kuhl also noted that the city typically brings a team of three or four people to contract negotiations, and the City Council has final approval.
Joe Hoffman, a union trustee who is in charge of their political action committee, and the department’s newest captain, said Conniry had not sought their endorsement. She is currently in her third campaign for office since 2015, having lost to Dingler in the 2015 mayoral race, then unseating John Lynn two years later for a council slot. But, Hoffman said, “She never contacted us over the years. Some candidates have asked, but she did not.”
Kuhl, Hoffman and OSFD Captain Brian Ritter all said Dingler’s support of and Conniry’s opposition to something called a SAFER Grant factored into the union’s endorsement.
The Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response (SAFER) Grants program is administered by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and, according to the FEMA website, was created to provide funding directly to fire departments and volunteer firefighter organizations to help them increase or maintain the number of trained, “front line” firefighters available in their communities.
Hoffman explained that he started working on a SAFER grant application in 2014. OSFD was notified the next year that they would be awarded $1.4 million to hire seven firefighter/EMTs for two years. Hiring began early in 2016 and raised staffing from 12 firefighters to 19, increasing minimum shift staffing to four instead of three.
While Dingler welcomed the news, Conniry did not. A June, 2017 interview of council candidates asked all candidates about the future, “with funding set to expire for seven firefighters. Do you favor retaining these positions, why or why not, and if so, how would you suggest they be paid for?”
Conniry responded, “I spoke publicly against accepting the SAFER Grant. I served as an elected director for a fire district and we never applied for this grant. With no guarantees that we could continue firefighters’ employment at the end of the grant we chose instead to hire one at a time as our budget allowed. When Ocean Shores accepted the grant, the seven firefighters hired knew their tour of duty was for two years. I’m sure they hoped we’d budget for them to stay. We did no such thing. We let them down.
“The city agendas have been full for months. Noticeably lacking was the SAFER grant. Why was there no discussion about the fact that the funding was ending? Why did the citizens not have the opportunity to weigh in on perhaps funding our firefighters rather than some of the other projects?
“Finally, the council authorized a study to show how many firefighters we need and how much our ambulance utility bill will have to increase to pay for them. We are still waiting.”
Kuhl disagreed, saying the department and the city had been working to figure out how to keep the seven since the grant was accepted. He noted that the ambulance utility study, done by an outside company and released Oct. 31, 2017, showed Ocean Shores could retain the seven firefighters and still keep its ambulance utility fee below that of Aberdeen and other nearby towns.
Ritter commented, “Questions have come up as to why the Ocean Shores Professional Firefighters Local 2109 did not endorse Susan Conniry for Mayor. Our Union knows first-hand, as ‘Boots on the ground,’ how vital proper fire and EMS staffing is for our city.”
He then quoted Conniry’s opposition to the SAFER Grant and said, “Mayor Crystal Dingler not only supported the SAFER Grant but also with the vote of the council hired a private firm to acquire a proper non-biased fire department staffing study that not only justified these positions but recommended more full-time positions to run safe and efficient fire department EMS operations.” The study actually recommended 30 fighter/EMS positions, a 58% increase over the present 19.
Kuhl said for the union’s membership, accepting the SAFER Grant and hiring seven more firefighters was an obvious choice: “If you can have better response for two years, with no obligation to keep them, wouldn’t you take it? A lot of small fire departments are using this tool.
“We ran a much more efficient operation because we had a four-man minimum instead of three,” he said, explaining that three people on duty meant that when two went out on a call, only one was left for a second call. “We don’t like to go out by ourselves; it’s dangerous, not even safe for our people. It can be a huge liability.”
Regarding the seven SAFER hires, Kuhl said, “Guys just want a shot. They all knew there was a chance we couldn’t keep them. But when we saw that we could keep them all and still be less utility-wise than our neighboring cities we said, ‘Yeah, let’s do it.’ ”
Hoffman noted, “We’ve gotten involved politically before; helped out candidates before, although not every year and every time, but at certain times we have. We voted and decided to support Crystal because of our record with her and we wanted people to know that. We’re firefighters and our concern is for the well-being of the citizens of Ocean Shores and its public safety, and we support Crystal because she has supported us and prioritized public safety.”