A majority of South Lane County Fire and Rescue board members voted to return Fire Chief John Wooten to full duty without disciplinary action last Thursday (June 18.)
Following more than an hour of executive session discussion regarding the matter, board members Tom Munroe, Cheryl Shannon and Dan Duffy voted in favor of the reinstatement while Board President Joel Higdon and Board Vice President Jennifer Radcliffe voted against the motion.
Radcliffe announced her resignation immediately following the vote.
Wooten had been placed on non-disciplinary paid administrative leave after a controversial post made by Wooten on Facebook was amplified by a KEZI News report on June 2.
The post in question read: “So I made the comment we should shoot the rioters and someone asked me how I could possibly do that. I replied it depended on distance, wind, temp, humidity and a few other variables but once I had the calculations done it would be a matter of breathing control and trigger squeeze.”
Public responses to the report were split into both support and condemnation of Wooten and his post, prompting petitions and even a street-side rally backing the chief.
Prior to the board’s June 18 vote, board members shared opinions on the motion before them.
“I think at this point if we let this man go, we’re losing a great asset,” said Munroe. “We’ve all made a mistake at one time or another in our lives.”
Munroe also cited public support that seemed to favor the chief remaining in his position.
Duffy, too, reflected on public comments.
“I think the local community recognizes his value to this district and they don’t want to lose him, even if he made a mistake,” he said.
Shannon referred to the chief’s character.
“I think that he’s a man of integrity and you don’t let men of integrity go,” added Shannon.
Radcliffe was in agreement that the chief had done his job well, but was not content with the motion’s lack of discipline.
“I would be more in favor of something that shows a little disciplinary action because I think, as a chief, he’s always been a strict disciplinarian, which has served us well in the district,” she said. “And I don’t know how … it’s going to work if we as a board return him without any discipline, even though I understand him to be remorseful.”
Duffy commented that the chief’s days of leave were “pretty good discipline,” though the district’s attorney Christy Monson clarified that the chief was on non-disciplinary paid administrative leave.
“I just want to make sure that everybody knows the chief has not been disciplined and the reason he’s on leave is purely administrative,” she said.
Higdon, too, felt the board’s action should reflect a reaction to the chief’s conduct.
“As the motion reads right now, he’s being reinstated without any other action and I have concerns in that I do believe there needs to be a disciplinary piece to this,” he said.
Higdon cited a section of the district’s Standard Operating Guidelines (SOG) which covers the use of social media and stipulates ways in which staff are prohibited from using it.
According to the district’s SOG, district personnel who maintain or contribute to social media sites are prohibited from engaging in certain activities. This is specifically addressed in Section 3, where procedures do not allow “Using social media to threaten physical violence against a district’s personnel, business partners, service providers or members of the public we serve.”
“He is our employee,” said Higdon. “We need to hold him to the same standards that we expect him to hold his staff to.”
Following the vote, Higdon allowed for closing statements.
Monroe responded to Higdon regarding how Wooten might handle his own staff.
“I just can’t see where he is going to interfere with their personal life,” Munroe said.
Shannon called for a return to normalcy.
Radcliffe then resigned from her director position of the SLCFR board.
“It really has been an honor to serve this community for over five years,” she said. “As the senior-most member of this board, I leave very proud of the many positive strides that have been made by the district during my time here. As a whole, the personnel who work inside the district are very hard-working men and women who have the public’s best interest at heart.”
Radcliffe thanked Higdon for his leadership and communication.
“However, in light of recent events, I really have lost confidence in the rigor of this board to do what it is they were elected to do by the [people] in Lane County,” she continued. “They’ve been acting more as the fire chief’s friends than his employer.”
Radcliffe expressed her disappointment that the board’s actions were not a matching response to the chief’s conduct.
“His actions do not adhere to the mission/vision values of the district and we’ve heard that many times over in the emails we’ve received from constituents,” she said. “In the process of trying to do my job as a board member, two of the other board members openly stated false and misleading comments about me, which is unfortunate. As an elected official to this board, it is my responsibility to speak up when I have concerns. I take that seriously. I don’t want to cave to intimidation; however, I also have a business to run and a family to raise. So, it is with a heavy heart that this will be my last night with you and I have reached the conclusion that I am going to resign.”
The next board meeting is scheduled for July 16, where Radcliffe’s resignation may be accepted and board members can address the vacancy.
Higdon thanked Radcliffe for her years of service.