A former fire chief has come out of retirement to lead Central Pierce Fire & Rescue until the district can replace Chief Keith Wright, who stepped down abruptly two weeks ago amid fears he would be ousted by the district’s board of commissioners.
Board members unanimously approved Chief Jack Andren’s contract Monday while they search for Wright’s permanent replacement. Andren retired five years ago after receiving a pay raise that state auditors later challenged, saying it was given improperly in a way that improved his pension benefits.
Andren will again lead a fire district that serves about 200,000 people in communities from Parkland to Puyallup.
“We needed to make a change,” chairman Bob Willis said. “The board did not feel that the division heads were getting adequate direction, and that Chief Wright wasn’t giving adequate follow-through.”
Wright has taken an assistant chief job in the district. He said he was blindsided when the board went into executive session Sept. 14 and asked him to wait outside. The closed-door sessions are reserved for topics such as real estate negotiations and personnel issues.
“That was a red flag for me that something wasn’t right,” Wright said. “If they were talking about somebody else, I would have been in there.”
Wright said he feared worst-case outcomes from the meeting, including termination. To simplify the process, he said, he walked into the meeting with a letter notifying the board that he was stepping down.
He has worked for the district since November 1989 and as chief since March 2013.
“I didn’t know it was coming,” he said, noting that the board hadn’t notified him of problems with his leadership. However, Wright added, “part of my team wasn’t as cohesive as I wanted it to be.”
Willis said the move had been a long time coming. The board first started talking about a change in leadership about eight months ago, he said, both in public meetings and one-on-one with Wright himself.
“You don’t take somebody out of a position like this overnight,” Willis said. “There has to be a history of problems.”
Willis didn’t elaborate on any specific problems under Wright’s leadership, though he said the “department wasn’t functioning adequately.”
“This has been a very difficult thing,” Willis said. “Chief Wright is a likeable guy.”
Russ Karns is the president of Pierce County Professional Firefighters Local 726. He said the union often disagreed with Wright, but that’s not unusual with any administration.
“Him and I are often times at odds,” Karns said of Wright. “But that’s the nature of the relationship.”
Karns said he was unaware of any effort to oust Wright.
“I did not ask for him to be terminated,” Karns said. “I did not know that this was happening. This was a surprise to me.”
Once Wright notified the board he was resigning as chief, commissioners contacted Andren, who had retired from Central Pierce in 2010 after 42 years of fire service and nine years as chief.
Andren said agreeing to come back was his way to repay the organization where he enjoyed working for so many years.
“Once a firefighter,” he said, “you’re always a firefighter.”
He will make $14,555 per month, the same amount Wright made, until the district finds a permanent chief.
In the meantime, Andren’s retirement payments have been suspended, according to the state Department of Retirement Systems. DRS spokesman David Brine said Andren’s benefit will be recalculated once he re-enters retirement.
Andren retired from Central Pierce in May 2010. About a year later, state auditors found that the board had inappropriately increased his pay before he retired and did so behind closed doors, in violation of state law.
At the time, the board insisted the vote was taken publicly, and Andren said he didn’t intend to do anything improper. The additional pay was meant to fulfill severance agreement terms that dated back to the 1970s, officials said at the time.
Andren said Wednesday that he has since paid back the difference.
Wright said he’s satisfied with his new role at Central Pierce, working as an assistant chief in charge of health and wellness programs. His salary will drop to $11,544 per month.
The chief job was more stressful than he anticipated, he said. Wright said he wants to spend more time doing work that focuses on servant leadership rather than politics.
“I’m back to a place where I can be that leader again,” he said. “That’s my passion, to help people.”