WALDPORT — Following a contentious meeting last month, the Central Oregon Coast Fire & Rescue Board of Directors convened again on Thursday, Oct. 21, only to face a flood of backlash from district employees and the public regarding their conduct during that prior meeting.

When the board met for its regular meeting in September, three board members, Todd Holt, Buster Pankey and Kathryn Menefee, brought a myriad of concerns to Chief Jamie Mason, and Mason, district staff and fellow board member Kevin Battles questioned their “aggressive” demeanor as the meeting dragged on.

Attendees weren’t the only ones who took issue with the proceedings. The Central Coast & Seal Rock Professional Firefighters of Local 4619 union and Central Oregon Coast Fire & Rescue Volunteer Association both issued statements the following week condemning the board’s conduct after the livestreamed video of the proceedings circulated online.

Despite the backlash over how they were raised, all of the issues broached by board members during the last meeting have since been addressed by Mason and his staff, with some leading to changes in district policy. 

Such issues included the state of the district’s Five Rivers station, which Holt claimed to have been found in deplorable condition during a visit before the September meeting, with its door kicked in, evidence of a rat infestation and overgrown plant life on the building. 

Mason said during the Oct. 21 meeting that he and district staff worked extensively over the past month to clean the station and remove the rats at the board’s request. Later during the meeting, the board approved a contract with Pro-Pest Solutions for monthly extermination service for both the Five Rivers and Tidewater stations.

Also during the September meeting, Pankey voiced concerns about the district’s relationship with Information Station, an online media and news company run by two district employees, wife and husband Wendy and Erich Knudsen. Primary among Pankey’s concerns were that the two were running the private business out of the district office and that they might be spending time posting to Information Station’s Facebook page during work hours. Information Station had also been in charge of streaming the board’s monthly meetings, during which it ran advertisements for several Waldport businesses. 

While Mason testified during the September meeting that the Knudsens weren’t running their business out of the district’s office or working on company time, he said during Thursday’s meeting that he had established new guidelines for all district employees regarding what was and wasn’t appropriate to do during work hours. He added that the district’s monthly board meeting would no longer be streamed on Information Station’s YouTube channel and that a copy machine belonging to Information Station that the district had been housing for use by both parties had been removed.

On Oct. 1, Information Station announced in a Facebook post regarding a traffic accident that it had made some changes to its posting policy: “Due to a conflict of jobs we will only post updates of when the highway reopens.”

Wendy Knudsen made another post following the board’s Thursday meeting, announcing that she had found someone to help post about incidents during work hours in her stead. While the post frames the decision to separate Information Station from COCFR as a willing one, it also continues to denounce the board’s behavior.

“We chose to quit posting during certain times of the day, except on our unpaid lunch break (keep in mind that the board is not our boss, only the fire chief is), which they are also saying we cannot do, BOLI (Oregon Bureau of Labor & Industries) says otherwise,” a portion of the post reads. “Why they are trying to shut us down and cause our sponsors to not get seen like they should is beyond us. We also chose to stop our free livestreaming service of COCFR Board meetings, as we have sponsor ads at the beginning and didn’t want that to be called unethical. I will not let these three board members tell me that I can’t continue to inform the citizens of Lincoln County about the incidents causing road closures or delays. We do this for your safety as well as the safety of our fellow first responders.”

Thursday’s meeting was streamed by a new official YouTube channel for the district at noticeably lower quality than any of the prior streams.

Shortly after the Thursday meeting began, former COCFR board member Peter Carlich, who lost to Holt by five votes in the May election, was the first to address the board’s conduct during the prior meeting, claiming it was disrespectable and calling for their immediate resignation “in disgrace.” 

“It was disgusting watching the three of you viciously attack our chief and his staff like rabid dogs tearing at a piece of meat,” Carlich said. “For one, it showed collusion. Two, it showed intent. Your actions were just horrible in that regard, and what’s worse is you showed the world this is what board members look like from our area.”

Pankey, who serves as the board’s chairman, interrupted Carlich, asking him and the public to let the issue of how the board behaved during its last meeting be put to rest.

“We got ridiculed pretty damn good over the letters and everything else,” Pankey said. “You all had your chance to bash us over social media, and we really don’t need any more bashing. We get it, we’re unprofessional, we’re ignorant. I get it. We’ve all been called enough names already and don’t need to be called any more tonight.” 

But that did little to dissuade the line of people who had showed up to speak their piece at the meeting.

Carlich told Pankey that he was entitled to three minutes of speaking time regardless of what he had to say, finishing his statement by telling the board they did not represent the people’s values, that they were unfit for their positions and threatening to initiate a recall if the board “continues in this direction.”

Menefee commented after Carlich finished speaking, stating she understood the way the board approached its issues could have been handled better during the prior meeting, but added the board had inherited a difficult position that inclined them to remain skeptical of district affairs. 

The district’s former chief, Gary Woodson, was terminated by a prior majority of the board earlier in the year for a multitude of reasons, including sharing pornography with other district employees and alleged racist behavior. Menefee, Pankey and Holt were all elected to the board in May, shortly after Mason was appointed as chief by the prior board.

Menefee’s husband, former district employee Nestor Alves, is also suing the district for more than $1 million for wrongful termination on Woodson’s part.

COCFR firefighter Cody Johnson spoke after Carlich to read a letter by John Townley, both as members of the firefighter’s union, in which Townley rescinded his endorsement of Menefee that he made during the May election and apologized to the community.

Johnson also paused during his statement so that he and Mason could scold Pankey for allegedly chuckling during the reading of Townley’s letter, accusing Pankey of not taking the situation seriously.

From there, Johnson spoke on his own behalf about the district’s efforts to rebuild after years of neglect and how he felt the board was only trying to create pointless drama that was getting in the way of that.

Rick Booth, a district volunteer and member of the Waldport City Council, spoke next as a private citizen, denouncing not just the three offending board members, but the entire board, stating that Battles and Reda Eckerman hadn’t spoken up soon enough.

Testimony continued for around 40 minutes, and over the course of those testimonies, Menefee, Pankey and Holt apologized that the prior meeting had gotten out of hand and promised to work on their skills as board members to improve future meetings.

Mason commented later that the board was welcome to speak with him in his office at any time about any issues they may have, but he noted he didn’t appreciate the board “targeting” district staff the way they had, lauding both his staff’s efforts during the last six months and the board for helpful ideas they had pitched.

Erich Knudson, who serves as public information officer for COCFR, said that as of Friday no official recall effort against the board had been made public despite threats to do so during the meeting, though he was aware of a rumor that a group of citizens were organizing a recall against one or more members of the board.

A Facebook page called Save Our Fire Services 2021 calls for COCFR district residents to be prepared to sign a recall position against the board when it becomes available, specifically denouncing Menefee for “trying to destroy” the district for negatively affecting her husband’s career.

Recalls can only be initiated six months after an elected official takes office, meaning the soonest opportunity to remove the board’s three newest members would be at the start of next year, Jan. 1, 2022. From there, a separate petition would need to be started for each recalled board member, each of which will require 292 signatures gathered over a 90-day period. The amount of signatures needed is based on how many district residents voted in the last Oregon state governor election, which was held in 2018.

If the signatures are successfully gathered and verified by the Lincoln County Clerk’s Office, the board members in question would then have the opportunity to resign. If said board members refuse and provide justification, it would then trigger a recall election, which would remain separat  from any other regular elections.

(1) comment

BogusOtis

I don’t feel there needs to be a recall of all the board members but I did warn about the ethics of a spouse of someone suing the district being on the bored.

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