Just as all firearms should be considered loaded, public officials should tell themselves that any microphone nearby should be treated as if it’s “on.”
You know, just in case the safeties come off their mouths and they misfire.
That’s what happened to Fire District 1 Commissioners Bob Meador and David Chan earlier this month when the fire district meeting room’s audio recording system picked up a conversation between the two during a break in a public meeting. The exchange wasn’t heard by anyone in the room, but it was recorded.
Chan, in what both have described as a joking conversation, suggested the district, which has a shortage of paramedics, hire Mexican immigrants to work for the fire district because it would be cheaper. Meador responded, “I don’t want those immigrants. They can’t do the job.”
The district’s firefighters union, Local 1828, obtained a copy of the recording, provided the tape to the news media, and Chan and Meador were confronted during a special meeting by others on the board and by district employees, prompting a 90-minute discussion about whether both should be reprimanded or asked to resign. A resolution seeking a written reprimand, requiring formal written apologies and diversity training, failed in a 2-2 vote with Chan and Meador voting against the motion.
At a subsequent meeting Tuesday night both commissioners apologized but have maintained from the start that they will not resign. A second resolution seeking official reprimands was approved 4-0 by the board, this time with the votes of Meador and Chan.
While both men have apologized, they have blunted their apologies with statements that attempt to excuse their behavior. Both have protested that they are not racists; Meador pointing to his Mexican-American grandchildren and Chan insisting that President Trump has said far worse about Mexicans.
Both statements are true, but they also demonstrate a lack of appreciation for how damaging their candid conversation could be for the fire district and those who rely on its services.
At the very least this will complicate ongoing contract negotiations with the firefighters union.
As the district seeks to fill paramedic positions, the continued presence of Chan and Meador on the board could raise questions among candidates, especially Latinos, about whether they will be given fair consideration.
The district, which serves Edmonds, Mountlake Terrace, Brier and unincorporated south Snohomish County, employs 201 firefighters and paramedics, only 10 of whom are women and only eight of whom are racial or ethnic minorities, according to a report Thursday in The Seattle Times.
The commissioner’s statements and reluctance to honestly confront the issue can only sour the morale of district employees and discourage qualified job candidates.
One firefighter with nine years on the job, Moi Castellon, confronted Meador and Chan before television cameras, calling the conversation “extremely offensive.” Castellon, who speaks Spanish, said he has used that skill often while responding to emergencies. Beyond a firefighter’s or paramedic’s basic skills any district employee who speaks a second language ought to be especially valued by the district and its commissioners.
Chan and Meador also have complicated their own participation on the district board, the irony being that their decisions will now be prejudged based on their conversation, regardless of whether it was intended as a joke and only for their own ears.
At the very least, Meador’s and Chan’s statements reflect prejudices — something that everyone must confront — prejudices that should have been given more thought before the safeties came off and their mouths misfired.