SLCF&R Fire Chief John Wooten
COTTAGE GROVE – South Lane County Fire & Rescue board members tonight voted to reinstate Chief John Wooten without any disciplinary action, leading to the immediate resignation of vice president Jennifer Radcliffe following the 3-2 vote.
The board met in executive session to discuss potential disciplinary action regarding offensive posts on his social media pages. Wooten originally said that the posts were the result of his personal, private site being hacked. The posts stated the pandemic was a hoax and that rioters should be shot.
“At this point if we let this man go, we will be letting go of a great asset,” board member Thomas Munroe said in open session. “We all have made mistakes one time or another in our lives. The public seems more in his favor than against him. They don't like the mistakes he made but don't want him to be taken out of his position. They know his value to this District and don't want to lose him even if he made a mistake.”
Radcliffe said that while she agrees the chief has done great work at the District, “This event caught me off guard because his actions following were not who I had known him to be. It is unfortunate this is so public, and has had a negative impact on the District. I would be more in favor of something that shows more disciplinary action because as a chief he has always been a strict disciplinarian, which helped the District. I don't know how it would work for him to return without any discipline.”
Board president Joel Higdon echoed Radcliffe’s concerns of the chief being reinstated without any disciplinary action.
“I believe there needs to be a disciplinary piece to this,” he said. “I appreciated his words in the executive session … but the chief is our employee and we need to hold him to the same standards that we expect him to hold his staff to,” Higdon said. “That is just logical to me, and illogical to think otherwise.”
Board member Dan Duffy said that he considers the chief being on non-disciplinary paid leave as a form of discipline, and suggested Wooten issue a statement to the local paper, addressing that he realizes it caused a lot of conflict but did not make any harm, reasserting that the chief should return to full duties at the conclusion of the meeting.
“I think that he is a man of integrity and you don’t let men of integrity go,” board member Cheryl Shannon said.
Board members Shannon, Duffy and Munroe voted in favor to reinstate Wooten without any disciplinary action; board president Higdon and vice president Radcliffe voted against the reinstatement.
After the motion, Radcliffe resigned, saying, “it’s been an honor to serve for the last five years … but I have lost confidence in the board to do what we were elected to and appointed by our constituents to do. I don’t feel like the chief’s conduct was appropriate. His actions do not adhere to the District’s values,” and she referenced the influx of emails from the community that feel the same way.
Before going into executive session, Higdon acknowledged the community interest in this issue. He said the board had received 386 emails regarding the situation. “We did our due diligence to review those; that’s important," he said. "There were 230 phone calls and they were duly recorded. That’s important because I want our public to understand we appreciate they took the time to send that to us. … It’s important to me that a person’s voice be heard. That is extremely important to me."
SLCF&R’s initial statement on June 2 said Wooten “did not make any statement in his official capacity as fire chief,” and that his personal page was hacked. Wooten was placed on non-disciplinary administrative leave. The comments on Wooten’s personal page date back two months, Eugene TV station KEZI first reported.
Wooten’s account shared memes calling the pandemic “the biggest media generated mass hysteria since Orson Welles’ 1938 radio broadcast ‘War of the Worlds’” and another that said “Sorry folks, Oregon is closed, that b- in Salem said so.”
“The US is on a crisis lockdown over 41 deaths! That’s called a weekend in Chicago. Explain what this is not an overreaction?,” another post read.
During the height of COVID-19 in the state, Wooten was deployed to the emergency operations center in Salem and served as the deputy operations chief in the human resources division of the State Fire Marshal Incident Management Team (IMT). There, in April, he told The Chronicle he was working up to 14 hours a day for 14 days straight with authorities to plan COVID-19 responses. Wooten was also deployed to assist at the Oregon Health Authority in Portland, he said.
Wooten’s operations team implemented all plans that came out of the OHA, he said, and would build plans around EMS responses, set up hospitals and coordinate regional healthcare around the state.
In one post, Wooten wrote, "So I made the comment we should shoot the rioters and someone asked me how I could possibly do that. I replied it depended on distance, wind, temp, humidity and a few other variables but once I had the calculations done it would be a matter of breathing control and trigger squeeze."
Wooten, formerly of Adams, Ore., was chief of the East Umatilla County Health District, the deputy chief of the Helix Rural Fire District, and the base manager for Life Flight Pendleton.
SLCF&R provides fire protection to a 132-square mile area encompassing the cities of Creswell and Cottage Grove and an EMS service of 800 square miles. In 2019, SLCF&R handled over 4,400 calls for service.
South Lane County Fire & Rescue in Cottage Grove.