COTTAGE GROVE – When South Lane voters go to the polls on May 18, they can cast ballots for the members of the South Lane County Fire & Rescue board of directors. It will be only an exercise; the results already are known. 

The five-person board has four incumbents running – all unopposed. Another board member is not seeking re-election, and only one person has filed as a candidate for that spot. The deadline for filing as a candidate was March 18. 

This means the new makeup of the board will look quite similar for the next four years. Dan Duffy and Thomas Munroe, Cheryl Shannon and Chris Holloman – who is running unopposed for the permanent seat he is filling on an interim basis – and candidate Debby Stumph, a registered nurse at PeaceHealth Cottage Grove Community Medical Center, who is the only candidate for the seat Joel Higdon is leaving.  

Holloman, who works in agriculture irrigation, was appointed at the March 18 board meeting to fill the vacancy left by former board vice president Jennifer Radcliffe, after she resigned in June 2020 in protest of the board’s inaction regarding Chief John Wooten.

Less than a year after he was first suspended for posting offensive material on social media platforms – including describing how to shoot protesters, disparaging Gov. Kate Brown, and referring to the Covid virus as a hoax – the fire board granted Wooten a new contract at the March 18 meeting, without public discussion, and without having had a 2020 performance review. The contract, Wooten said, will last until he is eligible for retirement. 

Contract specifics were unknown when the contract renewal was announced because there was no board public discussion prior to the decision; the contract was not made available to the public; technological difficulties during the board meeting; and a lack of response from board members. 

While the board and Wooten – who represent 25,000 residents in southern Lane County – would not respond to any questions from The Chronicle, Wooten did send an email to the paper, stating, “I don’t have a lot of trust for the media, so if you want a comment I need to know the nature and intent of your questions. The board and I have no interest in contributing to any story that tries to revive the social media issue or has an intent to create controversy or harm to the District. I have spoken directly with the board on this matter.” 

Details of Wooten’s contract have since been obtained by FOIA requests, and the details are as follows:

The contract runs from July 1, 2021 through June 30, 2024 – a three-year deal over the span of four calendar years. This is the same terms he signed for in 2018. His first contract in 2016 was for two years. 

The chief’s salary remains at $133,000 – the same as his last contract. He started with a $115,000 salary in 2016. 

It was also discovered through another FOIA request that the board did not conduct a 2020 performance review prior to the contract renewal. His last contract in 2018 was renewed a month after his evaluation was performed. 

The Chronicle last year requested, received, read or listened to over 400 community emails and voicemails the District received in the two weeks preceding the initial newsbreak. Of that incomplete email sampling, 43 people in those emails were in support of keeping the chief, over 300 called for termination, and the rest called for some form of reprimand. Despite the community reaction, he was reinstated later that month without disciplinary action.