South Lane Fire District

South Lane Fire Board meets; Wooten back on job

SLCF&R Fire Chief John Wooten

UPDATED: Monday, Sept. 21, 1:40 p.m.

COTTAGE GROVE – The South Lane Fire District board of directors met Thursday, Sept. 17, for the first time since mid-June, and Thursday night’s meeting covered how to promote public meetings, project costs and board personnel moves. 

It was the first meeting for the board since June 18, when it reinstated Chief John Wooten, without discipline, for content on his social media pages that advocated violence against protestors and disparaged Gov. Kate Brown with offensive language.

During the Sept. 17 meeting, the Board updated its policy on alerting residents to public meetings “to reflect the true intent of ORS 192.640,” Wooten said on Monday, Sept. 21. “The update is being done to no longer reflect print media as the sole source of public notification. (The Chronicle) will still be provided those public meeting notices upon request as stipulated in the ORS.”

Wooten had told board members at the Sept. 17 meeting that it was problematic for staff to place ads for meetings because of restrictive press deadlines. The board voted to revise its policy.

The Chronicle has not turned down any meeting notifications due to press deadlines, and nobody associated with the South Lane Fire District has ever provided feedback that newspaper deadlines were an issue, said publisher Noel Nash.

“This concern has not come up in any conversation since I purchased the paper in February 2019. I’ve spoken with Wooten and his team members many times since then; we’ve published meeting notices many times, and this subject has never been mentioned before.”

Back on June 2, the fire board issued a statement after KEZI-TV in Eugene broadcasted offensive social media posts from Wooten’s page. The board’s statement said “The chief’s personal Facebook page was hacked and has since been taken down.” The Chronicle uncovered more offensive posts on Wooten’s public-facing Instagram page days later. It, too, was later taken down.

Only Division Chief Joe Raade, who was acting chief in Wooten’s absence, replied to multiple email, phone and text messages that The Chronicle left for SLCF&R officials the in the days around the Sept. 17 meeting. Raade said that he’s been deployed on wildfires, and has been “out of the loop since Sept. 7.” He directed media inquiries to Wooten and Martindale, both of whom attended the meeting last night. Neither returned multiple messages on Friday.

When the board met on June 3, it placed Wooten on paid administrative leave following the broadcast of the offensive memes and statements on his Facebook page. The board also named Raade acting chief at that meeting.

The board met again on June 18, and discussed Wooten’s status during an executive session, which is closed to the public and restricts reporters from publishing comments. 

Following that meeting, The Chronicle made three Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests for public material: emails by board members, phone calls to the district, and Wooten’s annual performance reviews. 

The FOIA documents, on-the-record statements from board members, and additional reporting with board members and SLCF&R personnel confirmed that a “hack” was not responsible for the offensive content.

Wooten sent an email to The Chronicle on June 24 that stated, in part, that he was “truly sorry for all the divisiveness and negativity comments released from my personal Facebook page created for the community.”

Raade and board president Joel Higdon confirmed July 13 that while Wooten was reinstated, he also was on a medical leave-of-absence and had not returned to work. Board meetings were canceled in July and August. 

The meeting had a shaky start when technological glitches didn’t allow invitees, including several board members, to enter the online meeting. Chronicle contributor Dana Merryday was able to attend online by using the “attend anonymously” feature, which allowed him to see the conference room at the fire station where board member Tom Monroe and Wooten were situated. 

The three remaining South Lane Fire Board members had joined the meeting by 6:23 p.m., and it was called to order by Higdon. It was not clear if any other members of the public had joined the meeting.

After approving the agenda, the board discussed additional costs related to the refurbishing of the fire department’s training and practice yard. Another $3,011 in charges were added for gravel and asphalt that wasn’t anticipated in the original bid. Board member Dan Duffy asked how that could be, and if the contractor had accepted the bid, then charged more money.

Wooten explained that “loose language” in the contract allowed for the discrepancy and that in the future this would be “tightened up.” 

The board also took several actions regarding its members. Cheryl Shannon was elected president, Dan Duffy was elected vice president, and Monroe was reelected secretary/treasurer. Higdon, the outgoing president who remains on the board, declined the nomination for secretary/treasurer.

Higdon offered to pass the gavel immediately to the new president, but Shannon deferred and asked him to continue to preside over the meeting. She said she’d conduct the next meeting.

The Board voted to formally accept the resignation of former board vice president and member position #4, Jennifer Radcliffe. She resigned immediately after the June 18 meeting when the board voted 3-2 to reinstate Wooten without discipline.

Board members said they had questions around the process for filling a vacancy, and voted to table any decision pending research into what would be allowed.

The board also approved its budget; no written public comment had been received in time to present to the board.

During the meeting, Wooten gave a report to the board that covered a variety of issues. First, he stated his doctor allowed him to return to administrative tasks, but not to go out on active duty yet. He thanked the board, staff, and employees for their support during his medical leave.

He reported the graduation of two fire residents who are moving to positions in other fire agencies. He said six South Lane fire personnel and four rigs had been deployed to the Holiday Farm Fire. He also noted that mechanical problems with older ambulances might necessitate the purchase of a new one to ensure that there will always be enough serviceable vehicles for the district.

The minutes of the meeting were marked “draft” due to difficulties with people trying to attend the meeting. All matters were decided by roll call vote, due to only one board member being visible, and all decisions were unanimous.

The meeting ended by Monroe thanking outgoing president Higdon for leading during “What would you call it … an argumentative situation.” Other board members expressed  appreciation for Higdon’s time as president.

The meeting was adjourned at 6:55 p.m.