News, SLCF&R

Chief’s yearly performance reviews reflect effective leadership, early social media misuse

South Lane County Fire Chief John Wooten has been with the district since 2015, and has received largely impressive performance reviews, though indications of poor judgment online date back to his first year on the job.

Wooten’s first performance review with the district was in 2015. In the review, the chief is largely commended for demonstrating leadership, managing relationships and immersing himself in the community; however, one board member mentioned the chief’s social media use in the review, and advised him to use better judgment when posting on social media platforms. 

Jennifer Radcliffe, who resigned from the board immediately after the chief’s reinstatement on June 18, was the one who made the comment on Wooten’s 2015 record. 

More this week:

* Chief under fire, part 2: Finding a way forward

* Editorial: Free speech, other rights, not unlimited

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

Radcliffe made the note on Wooten’s 2015 board evaluation, stating: “Chief Wooten represents the district very well and actively seeks to improve the district. The only area of discussion was surrounding social media on personal time. It was noted that as a prominent figure, judicious use of the medium was important. There were no issues of direct district representation on the platform of issue, more of an open discussion.” 

Radcliffe said that Wooten posted “inflammatory comments” about a Cottage Grove High School football staff member in 2015. She said it was more of a warning than a call to action, and the chief was not reprimanded. 

“My comment to the chief was that it doesn’t matter whether you’re wearing the uniform or not, you’re in a small town and everyone knows you as a fire chief, and how his comments could have a negative impact on people in the district,” she said.  

That was the only blemish on Wooten’s first year on the job. The remaining comments raved about Wooten “leading the district in operational efficiency and community relations,” managing relationships well, and improving the district’s public image. 

“Prior to 2012, the fire district was struggling,” division chief Joe Raade said. “We had external and internal morale issues that were all part of the 2003 merger with the district and Creswell Fire. When Wooten came to the district in 2015, he helped heal some of those old wounds. He was able to build up the bonds between the two communities that were protected by the fire district, saying that we work for the whole fire district — not just Cottage Grove. We have allegiance to both communities, and that is who we are today.”

In 2016, the fire board reported that Wooten has done “an excellent job continuously evaluating district programs … to ensure the district continues to improve its position to meet service and community expectations.” He is commended for his “vigilant watch over the district’s procedures, response and training.” 

The board also noted his swift adoption of a fitness initiative that promotes better health practices for all South Lane firefighters and volunteers. “Chief Wooten has worked with staff to make this (fitness initiative) an everyday practice and mindset,” Raade said.

In 2017, board member Joel Higdon praised his leadership qualities and said “it speaks volumes that Goshen and Pleasant Hill asked our chief for help with their district this last year.” 

Raade said that Wooten worked with Creswell and Cottage Grove cities to create an adult and teen Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) program, which is a national program of volunteers trained in disaster preparedness and emergencies. 

Raade said that with Wooten’s guidance, the rating used to determine fire insurance premiums in the district, known as the ISO rating, dropped considerably. 

“Chief Wooten was instrumental in this process as he provided leadership to staff and vision on ways the district could change operational practices to better meet the district and ISO requirements,” Raade said.

The rating was first attributed to the adoption of the 2012 levy measure, which allowed the district to better staff and respond to its public by having more staffing and equipment. That measure was passed by just over 50%. Raade said with Wooten’s leadership, in 2017, the bond passed with a 78% approval. 

“Chief Wooten has impacted most of the morale externally for the positive in the fire district and I believe that it is what led to that,” Raade said.

The rating is used to determine fire insurance premiums, and the lower the number, the better, Raade said. The rating dropped from nine to five in rural areas, from four to two in the city, with an overall ISO rating of 2/4/10W. 

“This means lower overall homeowner insurance premiums,” he said. “All the taxpayers, no matter where they live, should have seen considerable savings in their homeowner premium.” 

Some of the district’s customers reported up to a $300 yearly decrease in their homeowner insurance policies, he said, noting he personally saw a $400-$500 annual decrease. 

“That’s a significant improvement from what we had here before the chief; the number is nearly cut in half,” Raade said. “There are only 24 other communities in Oregon that have similar ratings.”

Board member Dan Duffy said that the chief is setting up the district to make it easier to find a good replacement when Wooten retires, and Wooten noted he was eyeing a 2023 retirement. 

In 2018, he was praised for his work with the budget, and Radcliffe said that he “has such a positive influence in the district,” and Duffy said he’s never heard an ill word spoken about the chief. 

Board comments from 2019 were succinct and complimentary of his performance.

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