The Philomath Fire & Rescue Board of Directors hopes to see the results of a third-party review of allegations into retaliatory actions by the end of this month, President Daphne Phillips said during a meeting on Monday afternoon.
As reported last week, SDAO (Special Districts Association of Oregon) will be looking into the allegations, which apparently include three known instances based on what Phillips indicated at the most recent board meeting. The fire district has access to human resources assistance — an entity called HR Reviews — through its SDAO membership.
Phillips, who was appointed to be the board contact for the SDAO’s human resources review, provided a glimpse into what could be expected. A second review would then follow with a consultant’s look into overall district operations, Phillips said.
Philomath Professional Firefighters IAFF 4925’s attorney sent a letter via email on June 29 to the fire district’s attorney alleging that Fire Chief Tom Miller had taken retaliatory actions with “several statements designed to intimidate and threaten” during a meeting that morning in response to separate no confidence votes by members of the union as well as the Philomath Fire & Rescue Volunteer Association. In the letter, the union’s attorney wrote that “the chief’s outburst is so disturbing that it is the position of the union that he should be placed on immediate administrative leave while the district investigates this matter.”
During a meeting last week, the fire district board did not place Miller on leave but did ask him to report any significant personnel-related decisions to board member Rick Brand, who was appointed to be the point of contact while an operational review is completed.
Earlier on June 21, Miller suspended the volunteer association’s top officers — Andy Louden and Jessica Olsen to investigate their involvement in a June 13 board meeting and “continued resistance to provide coverage” to the Wren substation. In its report to the board on Monday, the association said it considers the suspensions “retaliation for stating safety concerns to the board.”
The fire district board has not publicly stated the subject of the retaliatory actions.
Local 4925 represents Fire & Rescue’s professional members. The Philomath Fire & Rescue Volunteer Association is an independent nonprofit organization that represents the district’s volunteers.
Copies of the union attorney’s letter were handed out to board members and made references to alleged statements by Miller of him describing a lack of “trust and integrity” in the department.
Miller did provide comments in response to the recent no confidence votes from the volunteer association and the local union during his report to the board on Monday.
“I want to say publicly that I am very sorry that it’s gone this far and … I’m doing everything I can to make this place run smoothly and to make sure that we have everything we need to make sure that folks are safe,” Miller said. “And that I am 100% a team player and that I would very much love to just move forward and make this place what it is … It’s a wonderful group of wonderful employees and facilities and I want to keep that going.”
In a report to the board from the volunteer association, the organization stated that it “recognizes the gravity of the (no confidence) vote and is attempting to limit the impact on public perception” and added that it welcomes the SDAO evaluations.
As of Monday’s meeting, nothing had been reported on the fire chief’s investigations into the actions of Louden and Olsen and no date had been set for a disciplinary review.
Miller wrote letters dated July 6 to Louden and Olsen asking them to write narratives about how they have conducted themselves “in a courteous, integrous, and professional manner that is reflective of Philomath Fire and Rescue since January 21, 2022” with a deadline for those submissions being July 13.
However, the association replied on July 7 that it was “unable to comply with your request for a written narrative in defense of discipline” because no charges had been brought up against Louden or Olsen.
The association also questioned several other of the fire chief’s actions, including the existence of a “disciplinary review board.”
The interactions between the fire chief, union and volunteer association over the past several weeks stemmed from Miller’s plans for staffing the Wren substation, also known as Station 202, to improve emergency responses in that vicinity. Philomath Fire & Rescue and Hoskins-Kings Valley Rural Fire Protection District recently approved a one-year intergovernmental agreement, which included expectations regarding 202 staffing.
The Philomath board approved the IGA on a 3-1 vote during Monday’s meeting (Brand, Doug Edmonds, Phillips yes; Ken Corbin nay; Joe Brier absent).
Ted Baker, chair of the Hoskins-Kings Valley RFD board, was in attendance at the meeting and said he believes fire departments in the region need to harmonize and synchronize to function safely and efficiently.
“We’re going to test drive this for a year; we’ll get together in March and hash out what worked, what didn’t work and what needs to be adjusted,” Baker said, adding thank yous to the board for its support and Miller for the work he put into it. “I would hope that in the future, something could be worked out with Blodgett as well where we can have a more regional department that can respond to area emergencies because things are not getting smaller.”
Miller said daytime staffing at Station 202 started on June 22 “and that’s been going fairly well. We’ve had, obviously, issues we’re working through but it’s been fairly consistent on that.”
At the meeting, Miller during his report to the board provided details about the district’s organizational structure with an emphasis on volunteers. The information included $77,140 budgeted for volunteer expenses and the current number of volunteers at 37. Miller estimated that he spends 70% of his time supporting volunteers. Combined with time commitments from the deputy fire chief and office administrator, cited a dollar amount of $230,977 connected to the support of volunteers.
In another detail from the Monday meeting, Local 4925 requested that the board consider motions to develop a labor-management committee consisting of the fire chief, two union members and one board member “to consider matters relating to labor negotiations” and to designate the fire chief and board president as signers for memos of understanding, contracts and other labor-related documents.
The board tabled the union’s proposed motions until questions could be answered by a union representative.