Recently fired Ocean Shores Fire Chief David Bathke has filed a federal lawsuit against the city contending his dismissal was a breach of contract and a violation of his right to due process.
The lawsuit, dated April 23, also includes a demand by Bathke under his contract that arbitration be used over what he alleges was a breach of contract, but that the arbitration be stayed pending a decision on whether it is mandatory under the terms he was hired under.
It asks for damages to be determined at trial, with an estimate that Bathke’s damages already exceed $1.4 million. Attorneys are LyLy Nguyen of Ocean Shores and Scott Wellman of Laguna Hills, CA. The suit was filed in the U.S. District Court Western District of Washington.
According to the lawsuit, when Bathke was hired in June 2017, he was “told that the city had been without a fire chief for some time, that the union employees were running amok and needed to be controlled. Among other things, the employees were abusing the overtime budget and costing the city unneeded expense. Bathke was told that he needed to be a strong leader, ensure that the rank and file firefighters operate in accordance with city rules, established directives, and to reduce the out of control overtime pay.”
At the time he was being interviewed for the job, the suit states Bathke was “a finalist for other lucrative opportunities to serves as fire chief and a position in management,” and he gave those up to go work for Ocean Shores.
During his time as Ocean Shores Fire Chief, the lawsuit states, Bathke was “commended on numerous occasions for his sound leadership and direction over the fire department, both in private and publicly by the mayor, City Council members and city residents.”
But on Dec. 14, 2018, Bathke “with no notice whatsoever” was “handed a letter for the city’s mayor stating that he was being put on administrative leave because the union had taken a vote of no-confidence regarding him. At the same time, Chief Bathke was escorted by the city’s police force off the city’s premises,” according to the lawsuit.
In documents previously released by the city under a public records request, Bathke was said to have “consistently challenged” the city’s union contract with its firefighters and created several grievance situations in his first year. The motion to hold a no-confidence vote in Bathke came at the union local’s December general membership meeting, and all 19 members present supported it.
The documents released by the city show how several firefighters were interviewed as the city hired an outside investigator to look into the concerns about Bathke, and they also include issues Bathke had in his previous position as fire chief of Hellsgate Fire Department in Arizona. Another document appears to be a separation agreement and a proposed letter of resignation. In a document dated Jan. 16 to Bathke, Dingler states: “Following the no-confidence vote of the union, I spoke with several members of the union and ultimately made the decision to retain an outside investigator to conduct an objective review and investigation into the climate and work atmosphere at the Fire Department.”
The mayor cites two other disputes: “What has become clear to me is that you have lost the trust and respect of the members of your department. Without that, I do not see a path forward for you to continue in your role as Fire Chief.”
Bathke’s lawsuit, however, states that when Mayor Crystal Dingler informed him by letter of the union action, he was never previously notified “that he had engaged in any wrongdoing, in any activity that was even questionable, or that his leadership was subject to any concern.”
The lawsuit also alleges that the effort to hire an outside investigator was “merely pretextual, as (the mayor) had already decided to terminate him.” Bathke claims that “the only reason he was being terminated was because the union employees did not want to follow the procedures and supervision he had implemented.”
In the wake of Bathke’s firing, Dingler last month announced the hiring of Michael Thuirer, a 20-year veteran of the Ocean Shores Fire Department, as the city’s third new fire chief in the past five years.
Thuirer also served as interim fire chief in 2014 and then resumed his position as captain when another previous chief, Tom Lique, was hired in June 2014 after the city had gone several years without a fire chief. Lique resigned after less than two full years when he was first placed on administrative leave due to a lengthy medical absence, which then led to Bathke’s hiring in June 2017.