WALDPORT — A heated exchange during a Central Oregon Coast Fire & Rescue Board meeting on Sept. 16 left members of the fire district “appalled,” prompting the local firefighters union and volunteer association to issue public letters denouncing the board’s conduct.

In a series of unscheduled discussions during the meeting, members of the board criticized the district regarding maintenance of the Five Rivers substation and the district’s relationship with the employee-owned news company, Information Station.

COCFR Chief Jamie Mason, who has been in the position for five months following the ouster of former chief Gary Woodson, attempted to address the board’s concerns but couldn’t keep tempers from flaring as the discussion dragged on.

On Sept. 22, the Central Coast & Seal Rock Professional Firefighters of Local 4619 union issued a statement calling the board’s actions during the meeting “unprofessional and unproductive,” while a similar letter from Central Oregon Coast Fire & Rescue Volunteer Association published on Sept. 23 called on the public to hold the board accountable for its actions. Both groups lauded Mason’s efforts to improve the district over the last five months and characterized the tone of the board’s questions as an attack against district staff.

Facility maintenance

Board Member Todd Holt started off the Sept. 16 discussion by stating he had recently visited the district’s Five Rivers station to find it in poor condition and infested with rats.

“The door had been caved in, and prior to that I looked up at the gutters of the building to see they are filled with dead grass, which is hanging out,” Holt said. “I went inside the building and was appalled, absolutely appalled. I was a dairy farmer for many years, so I understand pest control and that kind of thing, and was aghast at the urine smell from rats and everything that was in there.

“I went home, unloaded my produce and gave a call down here (to the fire station) and not a soul answered the phone, which greatly concerned me,” Holt continued.

While the station is located on private property, Holt said the district has an arrangement with the property owner to keep the building indefinitely. He argued that by not maintaining the building, the district had remised on that agreement and demanded to know what the district planned to do about it.

Mason said district staff was working to clean up the building, but other work across the district often took priority. He said he was aware of the rat issue and had recently ordered traps to remove them, but the building needed to be sealed before any lasting work could be done.

That led Board Chair Buster Pankey to ask, in a confrontational fashion, why it was taking so long for Mason to address that and other problems in the district.

“I’ve been the fire chief for five months Buster. For five months I’ve been trying to fix all the problems here, and I’m sorry, but fire trucks rolling out the door take a higher priority,” Mason said. 

Mason later said that upon becoming chief, he discovered that deferred maintenance and years of neglect under multiple prior chiefs’ watch had left many of the district’s equipment and facilities in poor shape.

“You’re acting as if we’ve just been sitting here and ignoring problems for months while we’ve actually been sitting here trying to fix problems for months,” Mason said. “Not all of the problems we have are out at Five Rivers. There’s problems at the Tidewater station and here (at the Waldport station) as well.”

Pankey said he hadn’t seen much progress elsewhere in the district either, especially at Tidewater, but Mason quickly rebuffed that statement, noting that much of the work they were doing was on equipment or on the interior of buildings. 

Mason added that he was also working on most of these projects with very limited manpower with only six employees, and most of the work was being done in-house because the district lacked the funding to hire additional contractors.

That discussion ended soon after, but the board had another issue to address.

Media connection

Pankey’s next priority was to question the relationship between the fire district and Information Station, an online media and news company.

Information Station, which functions primarily through its Facebook page, periodically posts information from Lincoln County scanner feeds and shares various news and press releases from sources across the county. The company also streams the board’s monthly meetings on its YouTube channel, during which it runs advertisements for several Waldport businesses. 

The district’s administrative assistant, Wendy Knudsen, claimed ownership of Information Station during the meeting, but according to the Secretary of State Corporation Division’s Business Entity Data, her husband, COCFR Public Information Officer Erich Knudsen, was last listed as the agent before the company filed for an administrative dissolution in 2019.

Pankey questioned Wendy about how she ran the company’s Facebook page and asked if she did so during work hours, stating he often sees new posts appear on the page during that time and throughout the day.

Wendy said she mainly operates Information Station out of her home and usually only makes posts on her own time, but occasionally takes a break after a major fire call to post about it. Mason vouched for both the Knudsens in that regard, stating he had been closely monitoring what everyone at the district was doing during work hours to help manage its limited overtime and hadn’t seen otherwise. 

Mason then assured the board that Information Station does not operate out of the district’s facilities, but added it does have an arrangement to provide shared printer services.

Wendy said Information Station previously shared an office with another company that shut down and was unable to afford the rent alone, so they came to an arrangement with the district to house its printer there for shared use. Mason said the district helps pay supplies costs, but may renegotiate the deal when its current project with a different printing company expires in January.

Holt questioned the arrangement, implying that it may be improper for the district to engage in such a contract with a private business owned by employees, but Mason said he saw no issue and compared it to the district’s arrangement with Pacific West Ambulance to share the Waldport station.

Wendy said Information Station offers the same services, presumably including livestreaming meetings, for the city of Waldport, the Waldport Library and various local nonprofit groups as well, but if the board thought the arrangement involving the printer was an issue, she would be willing to end it.

Pankey later said he’d only brought the issue up so that if people continued to ask him about that relationship, he could give a thorough answer.

During that discussion, Board Member Kevin Battles, who remained silent most of the meeting, questioned his fellow board members about their tone, stating that they seemed overly aggressive.

Holt and Pankey said being aggressive hadn’t been their intention and they were instead trying to get thorough answers to their questions. Holt stressed that none of the boards’ questions were meant to be any kind of personal attack.

Afterward, the meeting resumed and business was conducted as scheduled, though elements of the earlier conversation resurfaced throughout. 

Erich Knudsen, speaking on behalf of the district, told News-Times staff Monday that the district couldn’t comment on the letters from the union and volunteers, but he encouraged public participation at the district’s meetings and the election process.

In the meantime, he said the district will continue addressing its various issues as instructed and said he had been working on the Five Rivers station over the last week.

 “It was in pretty bad repair. I spent last week on it, and Chief Mason came out to help,” he said. “We cleaned all the gutters out, we power washed the bays, and I’ve been going through the rigs and putting a fleet program in place to have them checked every week, but this stuff, it’s labor intensive.”

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