During a rescheduled regular meeting held Thursday, Nov. 18, Seal Rock Rural Fire Protection District board member/treasurer Paul Rimola described a district in disarray, with unpaid bills abruptly draining the district’s bank account, equipment left unmaintained and Seal Rock firefighters spending most of their time working outside the district.
Despite a 45-minute presentation on those issues, the night’s discussion repeatedly strayed toward the board’s controversial consultant, William Ewing, who by the end of the meeting was promoted to acting interim chief by the majority of the board. That vote followed protest by board member Tina Fritz, who felt the rest of the board was instructing Ewing to act outside his consultant role.
Rimola kicked off the meeting with an 11-page report on the “state of the district,” which included evaluations of the district’s five-year plan, its insurance collection efforts, the state of its hydrants and facilities, district funding, non-payment issues, an ongoing audit, the district’s intergovernmental agreement with Central Oregon Coast fire and several other topics.
Rimola attributed many of the issues at the district to mismanagement on the part of former chief Tom Sakaris, whom the board terminated from his position in September before hiring Ewing as a consultant to reorganize the district as the board searched for an interim chief. The report also chides the prior board at several points for not fulfilling its duty to create a report for the incoming board, the lack of which prompted Rimola to create his own.
In his report, Rimola calls Sakaris’s five-year plan for the department “more of a wish list and amateurish” with no comprehensive or financial plans outlined for the district. He hoped that moving forward, the board would make it a priority to develop an up-to-date plan based on the district’s current budget.
One of the most impactful issues the new board discovered after taking over was nearly a year of non-payment into the state PERS program for government employees. The report states that after missing a payment in November of 2020 and several more throughout 2021, the state of Oregon took most of the owed money directly from the district’s general account at once, nearly overdrawing it.
That was only the start of a list of financial issues at the district, which is also being audited by the state for inconsistencies in its previous filing. Other issues included utility payments being consistently late and the power nearly being shut off, as well as multiple overdue invoices for different vendors being discovered.
Rimola’s report also takes issue with the maintenance of district equipment, stating that many of its trucks were “mothballed” after the prior board signed an intergovernmental agreement with Central Oregon Coast Fire & Rescue. It also claims preventative maintenance had ceased completely on several pieces of equipment and hadn’t been performed for some time prior to Ewing taking over in October of this year.
The report concludes by addressing the district’s agreement with Central Oregon Coast, calling it “sloppy” and stating no one he contacted seemed to have access to the most current version, which was changed right before the new board took over. Rimola postured in his report that the agreement might have even been a “de-facto” attempt to begin consolidation of the two districts.
Rimola went on to call the agreement “one-sided,” claiming Seal Rock firefighters are responding to twice as many out-of-district calls than Central Oregon Coast is responding to within Seal Rock and that Seal Rock firefighters were “spending all day and night at Central Coast.”
Rimola also claimed that requests to keep Seal Rock firefighters within the district at least one day a week were rebuffed by Central Oregon Coast, and the lack of professional staff on hand at Seal Rock made equipment maintenance nearly impossible. Additionally, sleeping quarters at the district’s Bayshore station are not being used.
Immediately following the presentation, the board began a vote to have Ewing renegotiate the intergovernmental agreement with Central Oregon Coast, but Fritz protested the motion, arguing she had made a formal complaint against Ewing that had yet to be addressed, and that asking Ewing to negotiate for the district would be overstepping his role as a consultant.
“You’re referring to Mr. Ewing to take care of stuff that our interim chief or chief position should,” Fritz said. “He is a contractor, and we hired him as a contractor for this district.”
Fritz’s formal complaint was outlined in a letter and listed on the agenda for later in the meeting. The letter describes an exchange between Fritz and Ewing where Ewing allegedly began yelling and became verbally abusive towards Fritz as she was asking him questions over the phone. Fritz’s account of the interaction states she was questioning Ewing about the district’s training process for volunteers and whether he was certified to conduct training in Oregon.
Fritz claimed she was unable to find any certifications for Ewing through the Oregon State Department of Public Safety Standards and Training’s website, though News-Times staff was able to use the site to locate an active certification for NFPA Fire Instructor II for Ewing under Idanha-Detroit Rural Fire Protection District, where Ewing currently serves as chief.
In response to Fritz’s objection, Board Chair Al Anton briefly rescinded the motion to have Ewing negotiate with Central Oregon Coast, following it with a motion to appoint Ewing as acting interim chief. The board voted 3-1 to elevate Ewing to the position, with Fritz again protesting before casting the dissenting vote.
Fritz also brought up the issue of pending criminal allegations against Ewing, stating they had not been dropped as Ewing expected when the board initially hired him, but the topic was seemingly disregarded by the rest of the board.
In September, Ewing was arrested after allegedly strangling his wife, a felony offense. A court case addressing those charges remained open as of Monday with a hearing scheduled for that afternoon.
After appointing Ewing interim chief, the board proceeded to pass a motion for Ewing to negotiate with Central Oregon Coast and covered several other matters before briefly addressing Fritz’s complaints, which they deferred until the district’s December meeting to allow for additional investigation.
As the night’s proceedings came to an end, Fritz made a complaint that fellow board member Mike Burt planned to act as a volunteer for the department, which she argued was not allowed. Burt and the rest of the board challenged Fritz to show them where such a rule was written, offering to lend her the district’s charter and other documents to do so.
Before the meeting came to a close, the board gave attendees the opportunity to speak, at which point district volunteer Paul Highfill blamed the prior board for the district’s current situation and called on Fritz to resign, given her role as the former board chair.
“I don’t feel that she’s doing the job for the people Seal Rock and the fire department,” Highfill said. “I don’t know if she has another agenda for Waldport since she works there, I have no idea, but I do not have faith in her, and so I’m asking her to resign.”
Fritz responded that she had no intention of resigning, at which point the two began to discuss prior issues the district’s volunteer base had with Sakaris. Eventually, Ewing said he thought the conversation didn’t seem appropriate and suggested the meeting be adjourned