EVERETT — Two Snohomish County fire commissioners had a private conversation last week during which they made jokes about hiring Mexicans as cheap labor.
Their microphones, rolling during a break in a March 7 public meeting, broadcast those comments online. Local 1828, the firefighters union for District 1, on Friday provided the tape to the news media. During a special evening meeting, the commissioners argued for 90 minutes over whether the two who made the comments should resign or be reprimanded.
The controversy centered on District 1 Commissioner Bob Meador, who is white and joked that he wouldn’t hire immigrants, and Commissioner David Chan, who is Chinese and moved to the U.S. 45 years ago. In a different public meeting earlier this month, Chan said he was worried about hate crimes targeting Asians.
Meador, 73, and Chan, 65, initially tried to take Friday’s meeting into executive session, which meant the discussion would have happened behind closed doors. They were rebuked by board Chairman Jim McGaughey and Commissioner Jim Kenny. Meador and Chan also unsuccessfully pushed for the vote on the reprimand to be moved to next week. In the end, they were issued a written reprimand on a 2-2 vote. Chan and Meador voted against the reprimand, with Commissioner Richard Schrock absent.
The reprimand suggests the pair write a formal apology and attend diversity training.
Meador and Chan apologized repeatedly. They said they wished the union had approached them personally before going public. Chan said the board’s swift response made him feel like someone who got caught “picking your nose in the grocery store.”
“These were offensive comments, and there needs to be some sanction,” Kenny said.
On the March 7 recording, Chan joked about whether it would be cheaper to hire Mexican immigrants to work for the fire district, which has been short on paramedics.
Meador said, “I don’t want those immigrants. They can’t do the job.”
Union leaders say they became aware of the remarks Wednesday. They met Thursday morning with Fire Chief Brad Reading and McGaughey.
Reading was at the March 7 meeting and didn’t hear the statements, he said in an interview. He learned of the comments when the union played him the recording.
The comments occurred during a break. The board’s secretary had turned the audio system back on, before the meeting reconvened, so the system could warm up, Reading said. The audio system picks up more sound than the desktop microphones, he said.
“No one heard it in the room at the time,” he said.
Several firefighters made clear the comments wouldn’t fly, with them or with the public.
After the heated meeting Friday evening, firefighter Moi Castellon, who is the child of Mexican immigrants, confronted Chan face-to-face while television cameras surrounded them. “I have apologized 20 times … I will not resign,” Chan said.
Castellon had earlier told a reporter that he frequently uses his Spanish at work to help people during emergencies. He has nine years on the job and found the comments “extremely offensive,” he said.
Fire Capt. Rob Gullickson, who is the union vice president, said the comments were racist, cruel and insensitive.
In an interview Friday afternoon, Meador said he is not anti-Mexican or anti-immigrant. “It was a joking thing,” he said. “… I have Mexican grandchildren.”
He alleges that the union sent the press release as a political move to unseat Chan, who is up for reelection in November. Meador also noted that contract negotiations with the union are ongoing. The union on Feb. 18 posted on Facebook, seeking candidates to run for commissioner.
Chan is a Democrat who supported Bernie Sanders and Meador is an independent and they like to rib each other, Chan said. Chan on Friday brought up President Donald Trump several times and said that Trump’s comments about Mexicans have been “much more worse.” He referred to the proceedings Friday night as a political “hanging.”
Union leadership called for Chan and Meador to resign. Fire commissioners are elected and cannot be fired short of a recall petition sought by the public. There was no indication Friday that had happened. However, the board’s code of conduct, obtained by The Daily Herald on Friday, shows that commissioners are expected to be polite and professional and set a good example.
Fire District 1 is based in south Everett and serves unincorporated southwest county. Under contracts, the district also provides firefighting and EMS within the cities of Brier, Edmonds and Mountlake Terrace.
Reading, the chief, said the district aims to hire from all backgrounds, including women, people of color and veterans.
”We are doing as much diversity as we can,” he said.
When asked if the comments by Meador and Chan were reflective of the district’s mission, he said, “No, absolutely not.”