SEAL ROCK — After voting to terminate Fire Chief Tom Sakaris last week, the Seal Rock Rural Fire Protection District Board of Directors made the controversial choice Wednesday to hire former Toledo Fire Department Chief William Ewing to help reorganize the district and find a replacement.
Ewing, who served as Toledo fire chief for 19 years before being terminated in 2017 by former Toledo city manager Craig Martin, was arrested last month on assault charges related to allegedly strangling his wife, Tina Ewing, and is currently awaiting an early resolution hearing on Oct. 25.
Following an hour-long executive session held Sept. 30, the board voted 3-1 to place Sakaris on administrative leave for 30 days and then terminate his contract. Board Chair Al Anton and board members Mike Burt and Paul Rimola voted in favor of the termination, while board member Tina Fritz voted no, and board member Dustin Joll abstained.
When asked why the board made the decision to oust Sakaris, Anton said he and the rest of the board had been advised by their legal council, lawyer Lori Cooper from the Eugene-based Local Government Law Group, not to discuss the circumstances of Sakaris’s termination outside executive session. Anton directed News-Times staff to speak with Cooper for further comment, but Cooper did not respond before the News-Times’ Thursday print deadline.
Anton, Burt and Rimola are the district’s three newest board members, and the latter two have spoken out against Sakaris publicly in the past. Among their concerns were Sakaris’s interactions with the district’s volunteers, which in part prompted Burt, a former volunteer, to quit and later run for a board position.
During a 2 p.m. meeting on Wednesday, the board voted 3-1 — with only three members in-person and another calling in mid-meeting from work — to hire Ewing on a “second-by-second basis,” agreeing to a proposition from Ewing that if he was convicted of the allegations against him, he would immediately separate from the district. Anton, Rimola and Burt voted in favor of the hiring, while Fritz, from her phone, voted against. Joll had resigned prior to the Wednesday meeting.
Ewing was arrested on Sept. 16 by Lincoln County Sheriff’s deputies after his wife accused him of trying to strangle her during a late-night argument.
According to a probable cause affidavit filed Sept. 17, at around 11:12 p.m. on Sept. 16, Ewing and his wife got into an argument where she ended up shoving him in the chest, and he responded by grabbing her by the throat for 10-15 seconds, at which point she thought he was going to kill her. The affidavit states Ewing admitted to grabbing her by the neck, estimating he held his wife’s throat for roughly 15 seconds.
Among members of the public attending the meeting was board member Tina Fritz’s husband, Wes Fritz, who cautioned the board about hiring Ewing, arguing that if the allegations against him were true, it would be grounds for a recall against the board.
Wes Fritz also spoke to Ewing directly, stating that even if he was innocent until proven guilty, the allegations were very serious and would have likely cost any other civil service member their job.
“I don’t know you from Adam, and you don’t know me, but there are some causes for concerns,” Wes Fritz said. “I know the board president said the matter was personal, but realistically, when it comes to a civil service position, all that goes out the door. And everyone in a civil service knows this. People lose their jobs over it all the time.
“And these charges are serious, right? Specifically, strangulation and domestic violence laws. That faces up to five years, maximum,” he continued.
When questioned about the incident by Wes Fritz during the meeting, Ewing said it was a personal matter that was likely to be settled out of court and that it was ultimately a “case of who called 911 first.”
Paul Highfill, a Seal Rock resident and business owner, addressed the board next, saying he had spoken with Ewing and had been satisfied about everything he had to say regarding the incident, as well as his plans to help improve the district.
Anton, Rimola and Burt seemed to consider the accusations a personal matter for Ewing and focused on his qualifications as a consultant during the meeting, noting that he would only be acting as such and not serving as interim chief or running for the full position.
“He’s a true fire chief and has a lot of integrity,” Anton said. “He’s been very forthcoming about everything, and we decided he would be the best fit to help get the Seal Rock fire district rolling again. He’ll be the one helping us find a new chief.”
Anton added Ewing would also help reorganize the district’s volunteer system, which was the main goal the board had in mind when they chose to hire him.
“He is a one-person business; he’s a consulting company,” Anton said. “He was the chief of Toledo and a volunteer department over in Detroit, and he’s been in the fire service in Oregon for 41 years and has proven himself working with volunteers. And that’s one of our biggest problems.
“He knows the coast and has a relationship with all local chiefs and is the perfect person to come in and help us get the district straightened out,” Anton continued.
Fritz argued against Ewing taking on any duties other than assisting with the search for a new chief, and members of the public also asked what he would be paid for his services, which Anton replied would likely be decided at the next official board meeting, but offered a figure of $3,800 a month as a likely estimate.
In addition to his new position at Seal Rock, Ewing currently serves as fire chief for the Idanha-Detroit Rural Fire Protection District, communities located in the Mount Jefferson area east of Salem. Some citizens attending Wednesday’s meeting were concerned that both obligations would split Ewing’s time too much, which Ewing himself said was a valid concern, but ultimately that testimony did not dissuade the board’s decision.
Ewing also filed a discrimination lawsuit against the city of Toledo following his termination by former city manager Craig Martin.