Fire chief John Wooten was awarded a four-year contract extension at the South Lane County Fire District board of directors meeting Thursday, March 18. The contract, Wooten said, would last until he was eligible for retirement.
“I will reach retirement eligibility age within the period of that contract, but I don’t plan on running away,” Wooten said during the online video meeting.
Details of Wooten’s contract are unclear for several reasons:
-The board did not discuss the matter before making the motion
-The contract was not included in board materials pre- or post-meeting. The meeting’s agenda did include a line item under “New Business” that stated “Chief Services 2021-24”
-Technological difficulties made portions of the meeting, including the part covering the chief’s contract, nearly inaudible. A reporter and at least one other local official noted the difficulty in hearing the proceedings.
Following the meeting, Leesa Doerrie, SLCF&R administrative assistant, said that the motion to approve the contract “was all that was said on this item.”
When asked about a copy of the chief’s new contract, Doerrie said: “There was no paperwork for the chief’s contract,” but confirmed a copy of the contract was brought to the meeting. It is unclear whether or not the board reviewed the contract before approving it. The board did not respond to The Chronicle’s questions sent to its board email address by presstime Tuesday.
Wooten responded to a Chronicle email asking about the new contract, but declined to provide any information about the deal. “We have no further comment at this time,” he said. Doerrie and district commander Joe Raade also declined comment regarding the contract.
“That’s sad. That’s too bad. The chief should be talking to you,” said Don Williams, a former South Lane Fire District board member and Cottage Grove resident. “Any official should be open to the media unless there is a legal issue that prohibits it.”
The Chronicle has filed a Freedom of Information Act request to obtain copies of the chief’s new contract, in addition to his contracts since his employment with the district in 2015. The FOIA request was forwarded to Wooten, who said The Chronicle would receive a response by April 2.
The contract renewal comes less than a year after Wooten was under investigation for making controversial social media posts regarding the coronavirus being a hoax, disrespecting Gov. Brown, and explaining how to shoot rioters. Once the posts were made public on June 2, 2020, Wooten was placed on paid temporary leave. He was reinstated on June 18 without disciplinary action by the board. After his reinstatement, he went on paid medical leave through September at which point he returned for limited duty and remained on active duty.
“He’s been an extremely good communicator and fire chief,” Williams said. “From the perspective of job performance I think he’s done a good job. He has the respect of most of his troops.”