A long-smouldering conflict in the U.S. between an elected commissioner of North Whatcom Fire and Rescue and fellow commissioners of his own fire district has flared into a blaze that is generating heat as far north as White Rock.
Dean Berkeley, who grew up in White Rock and has dual citizenship, claims that a video of him addressing a White Rock council meeting in July – in which he describes himself as a resident of the city – was recently made public in Bellingham as part of a deliberate effort by opponents to discredit him.
Under Washington State law, fire commissioners must live in the district they serve.
But Berkeley – who insists he remains a Blaine resident who visits White Rock each month to care for his elderly father – says his description of himself to council as a White Rock resident was merely “a Freudian slip.”
He told Peace Arch News last week that he feels he is being targeted because he has identified “conflict of interest” problems with other fire commissioners, including one conducting private business with the district and another as a member of the firefighters’ union local.
And he says he is “very interested why White Rock is releasing video of me (to opponents) and why they are recording me and releasing it without my permission,” adding that the matter is “before my lawyers.”
However, in an email response to PAN questions, city communications manager Farnaz Farrokhi said Wednesday that the city was “not aware of Mr. Berkeley’s situation.”
She said she was surprised by Berkeley’s comment that his statement was recorded and published without his consent.
“Anyone from the public can access the videos of council’s meetings through our website,” she said, noting the city makes it clear on the website that meetings are public and broadcast.
North Whatcom District fire commission chair Rich Bosman told PAN Thursday that district staff got word that “we may want to take a look” at video of Berkeley’s appearance before White Rock council.
“It’s public record,” he said. “I don’t know where it came from. It came to staff and the fire chief brought it to my attention.”
Berkeley’s metal fabrication company, Altus Industries, has done business with the City of White Rock and built lighting poles and benches for White Rock’s promenade 25 years ago.
Video of his appearance at White Rock council was played – in Berkeley’s absence – at a special Bellingham fire hall meeting for district staff Sept. 28 by North Whatcom Fire Chief William Pernett, who questioned the commissioner’s eligibility to serve.
“We would be derelict if we didn’t at least ask the question,” Bosman told PAN, adding that “preliminary indications” from the district’s auditor now suggest that Berkeley, as a dual citizen, can serve while living in White Rock.
Berkeley, an advocate of cross-border co-operation by emergency-response teams, had addressed White Rock council on July 11 in his capacity as commissioner, commending city firefighters for their work in battling the Five Corners fire in May and offering the assistance of his district in any future emergencies.
“My residence is on Russell Avenue,” Berkeley tells council members in the video. “I live here but I work in Washington State. So this is my community.”
Berkeley told PAN that while he had not been able to attend the firehall meeting, he had tried to participate by tele-conferencing to offer his side of the story.
“I tried repeatedly for hours but they never called me back or put me through,” he said. “It was basically an illegal meeting.”
Asked why he suspected video would have been provided to his opponents directly by the City of White Rock, Berkeley said he thought it might be because he has been active in politics in his former hometown.
“Maybe it’s because I’m stirring the pot and asking questions,” he said, adding that he has also been vocal in opposition to highrise development in the city.
“(I’m asking) why do we need all these highrises that will overcrowd our hospitals and overcrowd our schools?”
He noted his family history in the city dates back to the pioneers of the late 19th century; Peace Arch Hospital’s Berkeley Pavilion is named after his grandfather.
“I’m very vocal,” he acknowledged, noting he has not been discouraged from pursuing his claims of conflict of interest against other fire commissioners by media attention he has attracted.
“People are trying to embarrass me. But I couldn’t ask for better coverage.”
Meanwhile a two-page statement issued Sept. 30 and signed by four fellow North Whatcom fire commissioners cites concerns over Berkeley’s own conduct in office. In their statement, the other commissioners condemned a lawsuit by Berkeley against the district as “a false claim” which has taken up “significant staff and commission time.”
Berkeley acknowledges he has been suing the district for $1,000 for work equipment he says he paid for personally four years ago, while serving as a volunteer firefighter, and which he says was not returned to him.
“I was issued with faulty equipment, which I replaced at my own cost, and I never received my own equipment back,” he said.
Berkeley noted this suit is “going to government mediation” on Nov. 3.
He told PAN that he plans to introduce his evidence of other commissioners’ alleged conflicts of interest at the commission’s next meeting on Oct. 20, however Bosman said that all agenda items must be submitted through him, and he has seen nothing of the kind yet.
“We’ve all had accusations and they’ve all been addressed and they keep coming up again,” he said. “After a while, you get dizzy.
“As the commission chair, I’m the target of a lot of his frustration, but we’re not out to embarrass him or hurt him – that’s certainly not the case.”