City & Government, Cottage Grove, Creswell, Public Safety & Health

Chief under fire, part 2: Finding a way forward

Editor’s note: The Chronicle reached out to area leaders and residents for their ideas on how our communities might heal and move forward in a positive manner following social media posts by SLCF&R Fire Chief John Wooten and his statements after those posts came to light. In some cases, people we spoke to asked for anonymity and offered comments only on background; others were comfortable speaking on the record. This is presented as an opportunity for community reflection.

On June 18, the South Lane County Fire District board of directors convened a public meeting to discuss the future of chief John Wooten, the public face of the department and an unmistakable leader of one of the area’s most important institutions. 

That night, following public and private discussions – the board members met in an “executive session” where comments are not public and where the media is barred from publishing them. Following the private session, the board voted 3-2 to reinstate Wooten without any discipline. Immediately after the vote, board vice president Jennifer Radcliffe resigned in protest of the final decision. 

The board’s vote has ended any discussion regarding the chief’s status for the time being. He is free to return to work, although Wooten has been on medical leave since his mid-June reinstatement. The board had placed him on non-disciplinary paid leave after his social media posts were exposed.

So … what happens when the chief returns? 

A common thread among people who spoke to The Chronicle regarding that question has been to create an opportunity that fosters a “healing atmosphere across our communities” and allows for “Chief Wooten to rebuild his relationship” with the community at-large.

“I can’t stop trying to figure out a way to actually bring Wooten and the community to a better place,” said a longtime Creswell resident. “Wooten seems to be on lockdown and doing the minimum to try and preserve his position. The board is now on the defensive also, and the bigger issue, one of prejudice and community concern about how to trust someone who has manifested with lies and prejudice, is getting further from being dealt with.

“But, if a community council was convened – clergy, civic leaders, Wooten, et al, there might be a way to come to a deeper understanding and also give Wooten an opportunity to be a better person.”

Another local business leader endorsed the idea of a professional facilitator.

“It could mean bringing in a third party to help the board,” this person said. “Not everyone has the skills to handle this; the board came up with a yes/no answer, and this is more complicated than that.”

The path to peace is always a hard one, but it is the only path worth walking, another said.

“You don’t need a session where we’re going to shout at each other,” this veteran business leader said, “but rather listen to each other.” And he encouraged The Chronicle to play a role. “The paper has to be an objective, healing force. Let’s see if we can heal. It has to be done very delicately.”

A community coalescing around a goal to move past the controversy comes with its own challenges.

More this week:

* Performance reviews reflect effective leadership, early social media misuse

* Editorial: Free speech, other rights, not unlimited

* A two-page spread of community reaction sent to the fire board

“I’d be very careful and I don’t know how you’d go about selecting a jury that isn’t already on the Mason-Dixon line,” said Don Williams, a former board member and Cottage Grove institution himself. Williams is invested in south Lane County, having led or been a part of boards with the Cottage Grove hospital, Cottage Grove carousel, Rotary International and Bohemia Mining Days, to name a few organizations. He started corporate memberships in the Cottage Grove Rotary and brought in SLCF&R through Wooten and Joe Raade. 

“A council is a worthy idea. It’s worth thinking about.

“Quite frankly, I don’t think you’re ever going to satisfy a segment of the community,” he said. “I don’t know where Wooten is politically, he and I have never talked politics. He is a law-and-order person as I am. The rule of law should be followed. And in journalism you have to follow the rule of serving the public and bringing things to light.”

Williams dismissed any concerns that Wooten would behave unprofessionally in the field, when life and property were at stake.

“Wooten’s a military man. He was an officer. He led a battalion. He’s going to protect the property,” he said.

Williams said some form of discipline by the board would have been appropriate. “I think he should have been disciplined with a month off.” He also cited the fire district’s turbulent history, from it’s tenuous partnership between Cottage Grove and Creswell, and the turnover in leadership before Wooten.

“I would deal with Wooten because to disrupt the department as we’ve done nine or 10 other times is just not good for morale. I have not heard displeasure with the chief from his troops. I was a very large part of the fire department for several years. I’ve had good relations with chiefs we’ve fired and those who have left. Most of those people were good, honest leaders but lacked credibility with the troops. Wooten, at least until up to this point in time, seems to have the credibility with the troops. He’s had very good rapport with average citizens,” Williams said.

Living up to the ideals of an organization’s mission statement and core values is essential, he said.

“They mean that’s what you work toward. Your leadership is based around the goals of the core values. I don’t think he should have said what he did publicly. The whole problem is that he is not alone in those thoughts,” Williams said.

Creswell city manager Michelle Amberg suggested that a coalition or group of community and municipal leaders could help address and resolve issues in a positive way. 

“I think this is a great time to consider a combined effort on this. I’d like to see the board engage a diversity-and-inclusivity expert to provide a broader perspective for the fire district, and the city of Creswell would support them and join in that effort.”

Amberg said an important part of moving forward is to place community focus in the right place.

“It’s not about Wooten anymore. It’s about the backlash. It’s about what this says about our community. Looking at the times we’re in and thinking purposefully about how we move forward on these controversial issues.”

The system she said, “is made up of historical habits. You have to take people out of it. John is not the most important thing in this discussion. It’s not about you as an individual … it’s about the system. Let’s change the system. Yes, we can acknowledge what happened, and it brought attention to something many people found disturbing and others found controversial. 

“We can have compassion for him, but we can’t have compassion for a system that allows any sort of inequity and disrespect toward the people we serve as public servants.”

Amberg agreed with Williams on the importance of an organization’s stated mission and core values.

“Our city’s mission is to let the light shine on all people from all places,” she said. “It’s inclusive, and if we’re not making it inclusive, we need to know where we’re failing. And I have a strong desire to improve.”

Addressing the fallout from the controversy isn’t a superficial fix, Amberg said. The wounds are real and deep, across the entire southern Willamette Valley.

“My own council is divided on this,” she said. “His actions have had a deep impact on our community that needs to be healed. I would like to see the fire board take ownership of the consequences.

“Those who know better need to go on with our lives and purpose, do the right thing and not engage with the non-productive elements. It’s unhealthy anger, and is hurting people’s health. We need to exclude the toxicity while still including the people.”

All of the sources The Chronicle spoke with cited the need for a facilitator with specific skills, and the ability to communicate effectively in remote settings. “Multiple sessions across digital platforms, we could make a statement about south Lane County that would be very powerful,” she said. “And we could acknowledge that there are many views, and all views could be heard and considered. Even if you hate this idea, you get a voice too, in a productive environment.”

Amberg said the Creswell city council will discuss establishing a social justice, race and hate policy at its July 27 meeting. “It might be an ordinance or a law; it depends on how far the council wants to go with it. We welcome participation from any organization; it would be great if the school system participated.”

Good people, even with disagreements, can come together, she said. 

“What we have to do is the hard work at the community level to be inclusive because that’s what made America great – inclusivity. Creswell is an amazing community.The people are sincere, and I respect that. We can work together without demoralizing each other. I want to find a forum to do that. I think this city council does, too.”

Still another longtime Cottage Grove and Creswell community leader said a united effort to resolve the issue makes business sense, too.

“It’s hurting the reputation of the District, and that’s everything,” they said. “Citizens agree to pass a bond measure because they believe in the leadership. You have to have a reason to vote to spend any kind of money. They have to know they can believe in the people putting it forward.

“For the district to really improve itself, the board has to resolve this the best it can.”

The chief and board must take ownership of the original comments and follow through, this person said.

“I don’t know enough to say they made the right decision,” he said. “It appears people would want to see some kind of resolution from the board that says – right or wrong – we have to at least have an admission that (Wooten) would do things differently if he had it to do it all over again. To say that publicly.

“That person has a responsibility to apologize … it becomes the responsibility of the board to put something in place that gives that person a plan of action.” 

No one is seeking perfection, just a way forward.

“The plan that would help people move forward is to have the board sit down with the chief and talk about how they could elicit a statement and a plan that the public is privy to … we all have our biases. He’s in a public position whether he likes it or not.”

The bottom line, this person said, was that Wooten deserves another chance, with appropriate contrition.

“Unless there was a legal issue, people deserve a second chance. If it’s not a legal issue, but is morally and ethically an issue, the board has to present to the public.

“In the end, we all want to have the best fire district possible, and that means we need the leadership of the board and the chief. Nothing can ever be the same, but I think you can make a case for going forward.”

Previous coverage:

*JULY 16: Investigation reveals ‘hacking’ letter, more controversial posts, A two-page timeline of events

*June 24: Wooten ‘sorry’ for posts

*June 18: Wooten reinstated without disciplinary action 

*June 12: Wooten investigation ongoing  

*April 29: Leading the way: Area doctors, leaders deploy across Oregon



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