SLCF&R Fire Chief John Wooten last year gives a presentation to Creswell City Council regarding plans for the new fire station in Creswell. ERIN TIERNEY/THE CHRONICLE
COTTAGE GROVE — South Lane County Fire & Rescue Chief John Wooten was reinstated last week, after being placed on paid administrative leave while the board investigated posts on his personal Facebook page, which was not publicly available. The posts, revealed by KEZI several weeks ago, stated that rioters should be shot and that the Coronavirus was a hoax.
"I am truly sorry for all the divisiveness and negativity the comments released from my personal Facebook page created for the community," Wooten told The Chronicle Wednesday. "While I firmly believe that every human is created equal, and my responsibility as your fire chief is to serve every person in our community equally, I can see how my comments could have been interpreted otherwise. I give you my absolute commitment to improve myself and become a better leader and example for others. I will not squander this opportunity to learn and help others.”
The board’s decision made for a divisive community on the subject; in a 3-2 vote last week, the board reinstated the fire chief without disciplinary action.
The public is torn between those who say the board did its due diligence in this investigation, and others who expected some sort of disciplinary action. Both sides have noted a lack of transparency surrounding the “hacking” of Wooten’s social media page.
Division Chief Joe Raade said Tuesday that Wooten is officially back on as the District’s fire chief, though he is taking some “personal time” before getting back to the job. Raade said Wooten checks in with the District daily, and could not clarify how long Wooten would be away.
The initial release from the District on June 2 stated that Wooten’s account was “hacked” and was not addressed at Thursday’s open meeting.
“People keep saying ‘well, we think he lied about being hacked,’ but I read the document that said he was hacked,” board director Tom Munroe said, who voted in favor of the reinstatement. He clarified that the “hack” in this situation means someone took screenshots of Wooten’s personal social media posts that were not intended to be shared publicly. The Chronicle requested to obtain a copy of that hacking document.
Cottage Grove resident Matt Schaft said that there was a “disingenuous level of conversation” at this meeting, and was a “plausibly deniable defense, and an inappropriate call to arms and Second Amendment rights,” saying that people have been “duped” and misled by the District’s original statement that the fire chief was hacked.
“I wanted to see something done,” Shaft said. “Claiming he was hacked is a smokescreen; it is taken straight from the politician’s tool chest.”
Creswell city manager Michelle Amberg said that while she holds the men and women who work and volunteer at SLCF&R in high regard, “I do believe that recent actions have been detrimental to our shared community and have encouraged divisions to deepen. What could have been an opportunity to perhaps heal some of the discord has been lost.”
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.”
Other posts shared memes by the chief called the pandemic a “media-generated mass hysteria” and another one calling Gov. Kate Brown a derogatory term for her handling of Coronavirus.
The motion to reinstate the chief Thursday led to the immediate resignation of vice president Jennifer Radcliffe, who voted against the chief’s reinstatement.
“My resignation is based on my lack of confidence in the majority of the board and how they conducted themselves through the disciplinary process,” Radcliffe said. “It is our job as the board of directors to hold our one employee, Chief Wooten, accountable for the actions. That is how I approached this process.”
Radcliffe said she and Higdon “had to stop our lives to make sure things go forward and are operating under the proper guidelines … it is a lot, and quite honestly I don’t think that this is over.”
Munroe said he did not take the responsibility lightly of making a decision as a board director, and in his process, printed out each message received from the public. Munroe said that, in sifting through the messages, he noticed approximately 80% were from the Eugene-Springfield area. He said that he did not factor Eugene-Springfield-made remarks into his decision because they were not local opinions.
Cottage Grove mayor Jeff Gowing said that he received a lot of negative comments from the Portland area about taking action against Wooten.
“He doesn’t even work for me, he works for the District,” he said, noting that it is frustrating when people from outside the community interject, and that people should “clean up your own backyard and stay out of ours.”
Munroe said that statements the board received were full of misinformation.
“I began to see a pattern of people saying to ‘get rid of him he’s a racist,’” he said. “There were people saying ‘if I’m in an accident, don’t let (Wooten) come, because he’s a racist and I’m Black.’ People said that we should terminate the man because of one thing, and I don’t agree with that.”
He said that Wooten has done more for the District than any other chief in the past.
“If people start looking at everything – not just this one incident — John has done an immense amount of work for the District … that benefits both Cottage Grove and Creswell,” he said.
In working with Munroe previously on city council, Gowing said that he trusts Munroe “did his due diligence to make the right decision,” and has faith in the board.
“You elect the board member and hope they did the right job,” Gowing said. “I think the general public is not privy to information the board was privy to, and my understanding is that the board sought legal counsel and followed its direction. I leave it up to the board to make the right decision.”
Munroe said, “people after the fact have stopped me after finding out I was on the fire board, and they told me they felt like we made a just call, though this sure is not over yet. I think people realize the decision is for the good of the District and are getting behind it, unless someone intentionally wants to crank things up, then we’ve got a fight on our hands.”
Radcliffe said that her resignation is based on the lack of trust in the board, and not on the quality work done by Wooten in South Lane County.
“I don’t want my resignation to be a statement that Chief Wooten hasn’t done a good job. All the comments supporting Wooten is a testament to all the good he’s done, but we need to know that he is under the same lens of disciplinary action as the rest of the District. You have to have a layer of consistency.”
Duane Taddei, Cottage Grove resident, said that, “for the people calling for Wooten’s termination and painting Radcliffe and Higdon as being some sort of heroes, none of them made a motion to include any kind of discipline. At the end of the day, the right decision was made. Everyone wanted to put the trust in the board, and it was a good call.”
“Everyone in government wants to go back to the Andy Griffith feeling of ‘put a good guy in charge and we’ll be fine.' But with a Good Old Boy fire chief, I feel less safe,” Schaft said. “I would like to see Wooten sit down at a round table with citizens to see if he will help restore some trust and lost faith in the public. This incident is exposing the possibilities for when we have a real scandal and a real problem.”
This is a divisive subject in our communities in Creswell and Cottage Grove, Radcliffe said. “And whether you agree or don’t agree with the board’s decision, I think it is important to remember that these positions are publicly elected, they are the people to go to with issues, they are your voice. I encourage people to make their voices heard so that we can start becoming more cohesive.”
Munroe said the best course of action is to “wait and see what happens. There will be more things to go on but we are starting out in the right direction.”