Seal Rock chief comes under fire

Seal Rock Rural Fire Protection District Chief Thomas Sakaris didn’t respond directly to criticism levied by former volunteers. Instead, he spoke of the district’s progress and the success of the intergovernmental agreement to share staff and resources with Central Oregon Coast Fire & Rescue, which makes firefighters safer.

Board of directors addresses concerns

SEAL ROCK — Some former Seal Rock Rural Fire Protection District volunteers and residents of Seal Rock took aim at Chief Thomas Sakaris at a board meeting held Aug. 13 by phone conference. Sakaris was absent from the meeting, out on a fire call.

Paul Highfill, a former volunteer with the district, claimed there were 19 volunteer firefighters when Sakaris joined the district, and now there are none. Sakaris, however, told the News-Times there are three paid staff in addition to the chief, five volunteers and one support volunteer.

When Sakaris was asked about statements made in his absence that some of the department’s previous volunteers would return if Sakaris was removed from his position, he declined to respond, saying that is a board issue.  

Larry Silverthorn brought a list of concerns to the district, disgruntled that the Seal Rock water tender was parked in the Central Oregon Coast Fire Protection District.

Sakaris explained to the News-Times that Seal Rock Fire’s water tender is in Waldport for training purposes, so that more firefighters can be trained to operate it. While it is used in Waldport, where joint training exercises take place, Central Oregon Coast Fire’s water tender is in Seal Rock.

Silverthorn also took issue with Seal Rock Fire District board member Tina Fritz’s employment with Central Coast Fire. Seal Rock Fire Board President Peter Benjamin shared the following response from the fire district’s attorney: “I don’t agree that Tina has a conflict of interest preventing her from serving on the board. But I agree that she should recuse herself from any matters involving the intergovernmental agreement with Central Coast Fire Department, as she may have a financial interest in the outcome.”

Benjamin responded in an email to the News-Times stating, saying, “The intergovernmental agreement was signed by the board chairs of both Seal Rock Rural Fire Protection District and Central Oregon Coast Fire & Rescue in March. It maintains that both agencies are fully independent, responsible for their own staffing and budgets. What is shared is personnel and equipment. Each agency provides a paid firefighter as a duty crew, so that there is an engine with two firefighters on duty 24 hours a day. All paid and volunteer firefighters train together at Waldport with Waldport Assistant Chief Jamie Mason as the accredited training officer and respond together to calls.” 

Both Sakaris and Benjamin made themselves available to the News-Times. Benjamin pointed to the board’s ongoing efforts to respond to the concern of residents “line by line.” Benjamin indicated that appropriate responses to the concerns requires a significant amount of time and effort to research.

Regarding the fire chief and his performance, Benjamin explained that Sakaris is due for a performance review as provided by his contract, and that process is underway.

There was criticism regarding the board meetings taking place remotely, rather than in person at the fire hall. Those will continue to be held remotely until the county enters Phase 2, per the governor’s order, Benjamin told the News-Times. All interested parties may join the meeting.

“There seems to be a problem with leadership and follow through at SRRFD,” wrote Paul Rimola in a letter attached to the minutes of the board’s last meeting. He claims many of the problems start with the current fire chief, however, some of the problems are with the board.

Regarding short and long-term resource planning, Rimola wrote, “The appropriate response from the board should not (be) to have more time-wasting meetings, but to direct the chief to have a comprehensive plan within 30 days.”

Al Anton expressed concern about coverage in the northern section of the Seal Rock community, taking issue with reported response times. Anton also took issue with Sakaris performing basic firefighter duties, particularly outside the district. 

“The Seal Rock taxpayers pay for a full-time chief to manage the fire district, not perform basic firefighter duties,” Anton wrote. He suggested the board put a stop to “these low priority responses outside of our district.” Anton suggested the board put the agreement on hold until Seal Rock Fire can hire more firefighters, also making a formal records request of the district.

“We are, as a district, progressing,” Sakaris told the News-Times. “And my main concerns are my firefighters’ safety and the safety of the community. If we did not have the intergovernmental agreement, we would have one person responding to a call, which is not safe. Now … we have a minimum of two people responding on scene.”

Regarding the agreement with Central Oregon Coast Fire & Rescue, Sakaris said, “It is working. It is safe for our personnel.” 

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