Fire district embroiled in controversy

A conflict involving the leadership of the Siletz Valley Fire District is causing controversy both within the fire department and the community at large. The fire district board will hold an executive session on Tuesday, July 21, to discuss personnel matters.

Board sets executive session to discuss personnel matter

SILETZ — The Siletz Valley Fire District has found itself embroiled in controversy. A number of longtime volunteer firefighters have retired, resigned or been terminated, and comments being made from people both within the fire department and in the community at large are expressing a lack of confidence in the leadership abilities of Fire Chief Glen Fluhr.

Fluhr was hired as fire chief in November of last year, replacing Chief RC Mock, who left the fire district in July 2019. Mock first served as a staff captain before being promoted to become the youngest fire chief in Oregon. He served as chief for five years.

Fluhr’s leadership was publicly called into question during a meeting of the fire board on Tuesday, July 7. A letter written by Alison McGrath expressing concerns about the chief was read into the public record. McGrath is a former clerk and office administrator for the fire district and was a first responder from 2015 to 2019. She said was she was concerned “over the number of veteran responders who have retired, resigned or been terminated. Firefighting is an ardent task that requires training, equipment and trust. Many of these volunteers have been with the department for over 10 years. This is such a loss to the community. New volunteers often don’t have the experience that only comes from time on the job.”

In her letter, McGrath also said she was concerned about Fluhr’s son, Zach, working as the fire department’s recruitment and retention coordinator, and Amber Fluhr working as medical director. “It is my understanding that nepotism is the practice among those with power or influence of favoring relatives or friends, especially by giving them jobs. I believe this to be an ethics violation.”

McGrath also wrote, “I am concerned that the board is being misled by this current chief and is receiving false information. As your prior office administrator, I can tell you many of these behaviors should raise red flags. It is my belief that the chief should immediately be put on administrative leave until further notice so that a thorough investigation into policy, budget and volunteer changes can be made.”

After McGrath’s letter was read, the chief spoke to board members about some of the concerns raised, including the employment of his family members. “If you remember when it all came up with Zach and Amber, I did not want them hired,” he said. “This is exactly what I was afraid of. Zach wasn’t hired by me, and Amber wasn’t hired by me. I just want that said because I was actually, quite honestly opposed to it.”

The fire board also heard from Bunny West, the current office administrator. She addressed Fluhr directly, saying, “I feel like you have put a ton of blame on previous administration. And I, too, will tell you, I bought into your story for awhile. But what I actually think I had pegged wrong were your intentions.

“It is not my intention to continue working here with you as the chief executive officer because I feel like you are so dishonest with what you tell them and how you present things,” she added. “You will start a story that is based in truth and you will spin that to a place where it is so far from the truth. I’m not going to work with you.”

The chief replied, “Well, I’d prefer that you didn’t.” He also said he didn’t want to get into a screaming match, and he encouraged board members to meet with the volunteers individually regarding how they feel about his leadership.

One person at the meeting pointed out that board members should talk with both current and former volunteer firefighters, to get a full perspective of the issues. 

One current firefighter, Hunter Noble, contacted the News-Times on Thursday to express his support of the current leadership. “I’ve never seen a family so hardworking and dedicated as the Fluhr family,” he said. “They’ve really made good changes to the fire district and are working to make good changes. From what I’ve seen, we have a really strong team going. The ones that are responding are doing amazing, making the best of what we have. And really we get along well. I love the changes the chief has been making. It’s been leading us in the right direction.”

But not all see it that way, including Siletz Mayor Willie Worman. 

“I really don’t know a whole lot, just the community side of it,” Worman told the News-Times. “I’m trying to dig in (to the issue) and getting kind of stonewalled a little bit, but I have a meeting on Friday. They’re going to inform me what’s going on.” 

Worman said he is particularly concerned about the loss of veteran volunteer firefighters. “We have a big fire, whether it’s a brush fire or structure fire or anything like that, if we can’t get volunteers to respond, we’re in a pretty tight spot.” Even if they were to receive mutual aid from the Toledo Fire Department, “at the very best we’re 20 minutes out from getting another response, and that could be all the difference.”

Worman said the Siletz Valley Fire District has had its ups and downs, but “I felt like I had a great relationship with RC Mock and had hoped we could move into the same situation.” But under the current leadership, he said, “There’s really no communication or cooperation between the city and the fire department, which is a travesty. Whether we’re separate entities or not, we still should be working hand-in-hand.

“That’s where my frustration comes from,” Worman continued. “We’re in the middle of a pandemic, something that none of us has ever seen or expected to have to see in our lifetime, and we can’t get cooperation from our fire chief to even return emails or have phone calls or be a part of anything we’ve got going on. That, to me, is a travesty for our tiny little community.”

The fire board has called for an executive session next Tuesday, July 21. When asked about the nature of that executive session, Board President Ron Hervey said, “Right now I can’t say a word. We’ve got a meeting coming up, and I’m not saying nothing until after the meeting.” He was asked by the News-Times what time the executive session next Tuesday is scheduled to take place. “I can’t tell you. I was asked not to tell nobody.”

Reggie Butler Jr., the fire board’s vice president, also declined comment, other than to say, “We’re going to have an executive board meeting addressing concerns with what’s gong on in our district and the fire chief.” 

Under Oregon’s public meeting law, a public body is allowed to meet in closed executive session, but only for a limited number of reasons. One of those is to “consider the employment of a public officer, employee, staff member or individual agent.” Butler confirmed the upcoming executive session concerns a personnel matter.

Next Tuesday is the fire board’s regular meeting night, but Butler said there will not be a public session that day. “We want to see what’s going to happen at this next meeting, and we’ll go from there. That’s our normal board night meeting, but we’re going to push it to the following Tuesday. That’s the plan,” he said.

Worman, the Siletz mayor, said if he doesn’t get some answers to his concerns, he will be taking this issue to the next level.

“If there’s not some big changes or at least some big revelations made on Tuesday, at their next fire meeting I plan on rallying every troop in town I can, and going down there and stand there and demand some answers and find out what’s going on,” Worman said. “Because it’s not their fire hall, it’s our fire hall. It’s our community. We all need to be on the same page and know what’s going on.

“Whether they have their own board or not, ultimately, every one of them answer to the community,” he added. “It’s our tax money, and it’s our homes that are in jeopardy, so they need to answer to us.” 

The News-Times reached out to Fluhr via email, asking for comments regarding the fire district controversy. The chief had not responded as of press time on Thursday.

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