Tom Miller served as Philomath Fire & Rescue chief since February 2016. (Photo by Brad Fuqua/Philomath News)

Philomath Fire & Rescue’s board of directors officially parted ways with Tom Miller as the fire chief on Monday afternoon with its approval of a “separation agreement” and the appointment of Chancy Ferguson to fill those responsibilities on an interim basis.

Miller said that after meeting on Friday with board chair Daphne Phillips and board member Doug Edmonds, he resigned from the position he’s held since February 2016 through the acceptance of the separation agreement’s terms.

In a statement, the board said the decision was mutual and added, “We thank him for his many contributions and wish him well in all his future endeavors. We look forward to working with Interim Chief Chancy Ferguson and the rest of the staff and volunteers at Philomath Fire as we continue to move forward as a team.”

The move occurs following a dispute that’s been ongoing for several months in the aftermath of Miller’s decision to staff personnel at the district’s Wren substation. The Philomath Fire & Rescue Volunteer Association and Philomath Firefighters International Association of Fire Fighters Local 4925 both voiced various concerns.

Earlier this summer, the volunteer association and the union announced that each membership had approved votes of no confidence in the fire chief’s leadership. The union also filed an unfair labor practice complaint against the district with a settlement reached last month. The board, meanwhile, enlisted the help of the Special Districts Association of Oregon (SDAO) to perform a human resources “review of accusations of retaliatory actions” and to bring in a consultant to “review district operations.”

Miller, 57, said he’s not sure what his next move might be in terms of his career.

“Right now it’s wide open … I’m just trying to do some re-evaluation, think about things and kinda go from there,” Miller said.

The board plans to meet in the near future to figure out its next moves in the process to hire a permanent fire chief.

Miller, who has lived in places like California and Texas before coming to Oregon six years ago for the fire chief’s position, said he and his wife might stay in Philomath if an opportunity comes up.

Asked to look back on his time at Philomath Fire & Rescue, Miller named various accomplishments that he said his team achieved — passage of a bond measure, a major station remodeling project, replacement of aging apparatus and equipment, improved Insurance Services Office rating within the district, staff increases and an increased emphasis on training.

“We upgraded training by leaps and bounds … our folks are way better trained now,” Miller said. “Chancy has them out there every day doing something.”

In addition, Miller said the district was able to increase employee wages.

“We brought up our wages to be more competitive with other areas so that we could cut back on turnover,” Miller said. “All of our personnel now have been there for four years or longer.”

Miller also mentioned the increase in the number of resident volunteers and responders in rural areas. However, he said he continues to be concerned about Wren residents with the Station 202 situation.

The substation had been staffed during the summer months through temporary employees hired through the district’s receipt of an Oregon State Fire Marshal grant.

“I’d say my biggest regret is just not getting Wren staffed appropriately and having to walk out on the Kings Valley agreement,” Miller said. “I’m worried about those folks and the response they’re getting out there … they pay the same taxes as people in town.”

The agreement signed this summer between the two districts outlined expectations related to Station 202 staffing.

“I’ll have fond memories of this place because we accomplished a lot,” Miller said. “We improved things a lot and I’m very proud of our team and our personnel because I couldn’t have done it myself obviously.”

Asked if there was a point in time that forced Miller to question his future in the district, he said the no-confidence votes by the volunteer association and union had an impact on this thinking.

“Yeah, that was definitely something that made me re-evaluate things that were required of myself and my future,” Miller said.

At the meeting on Monday, Ferguson shared a few comments about his approach moving forward.

“I look at this interim position as all of us sitting here as a team,” Ferguson said during the board meeting with an audience of staff members and volunteers filling seats. “As firefighters, our most basic job is to do what? … It’s to solve problems and to tackle that problem with an aggressive plan.”

Ferguson mentioned the challenges at hand but expressed a feeling of confidence with the various skill sets.

“We’re going to face challenges every day, but we can get through those challenges, we really can,” Ferguson said. “And in the long run, we’ll be the better for it.”

Andy Louden, president of the volunteer association, said that he’s looking to working with new leadership.

“The association plans on supporting the board in their decision and look forward to working with the interim chief and the board getting the department back on its feet as we look toward the future,” Louden said.

Union president Andrew Licon also expressed its support for the board’s decision to appoint Ferguson as interim chief.

The board’s votes on adopting the separation agreement and the Ferguson appointment passed by 4-0 counts (board member Joe Brier absent).

Brad Fuqua, Philomath News

Brad Fuqua has covered the Philomath area since 2014 as the editor of the now-closed Philomath Express and currently as publisher/editor of the Philomath News. He has worked as a professional journalist since 1988 at daily and weekly newspapers in Nebraska, Kansas, North Dakota, Arizona, Montana and Oregon.