SEAL ROCK — Ongoing tensions between members of the local public and the Seal Rock Rural Fire Protection District Board of Directors continued down a path of contention during a board meeting held Jan. 14 at the department’s Northwest Rand Street location.
Earlier this week, board President Tina Fritz told the News-Times the board has no current intentions to fire Seal Rock Fire Chief Tom Sakaris, who has come under scrutiny from former board members, volunteers and others who live in the department’s 16.5-mile coverage area.
“I can tell you that right now, the board is not looking to replace the chief,” Fritz said.
Tempers ran hot during the board’s December meeting, when former board member and 40-year volunteer captain Larry Silverthorn spoke during the meeting’s public comment period. Archived audio of the meeting, found at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LiUSr_LwHoo, revealed Silverthorn exceeded his 3-minute time limit for comment and was granted an additional 30 seconds to speak. Silverthorn then, at the back of the room and well distanced from recording equipment, engaged in a verbal confrontation with a Seal Rock firefighter. The board then had Silverthorn removed from the meeting and subsequently banned him from attending board meetings in person for six months.
Silverthorn and several others in attendance at that meeting say the firefighter first engaged Silverthorn, which caused him to shout, “Do you want a piece of me?” Board members say Silverthorn was the aggressor in the confrontation, leading to his six-month censure from physically attending board meetings.
“In the interest of public safety and common courtesy to those persons attending Seal Rock District Board meetings, it is now determined for a time not to exceed six months you will be censured from physically attending Seal Rock Fire Protection District board meetings,” read an undated letter obtained by the News-Times, which had been sent by Fritz and the board to Silverthorn. “However, the district board welcomes your input by letter or telephonic conference call for as long as we have call-in meeting availability.”
Silverthorn did attend last week’s board meeting by phone, and offered public comment regarding the confrontation.
“I did not abuse, assault or accost any board or staff member as accused in the letter,” he said, but again ran past his allotted three minutes for public comment.
Fritz, who denied Silverthorn’s request to have his matter placed on last Thursday’s meeting agenda, responded.
“I’m not going to keep rehashing exactly what happened,” Fritz said. “There were enough people in the audience that saw and heard, and everything can be heard on the live version. You guys can always go and listen to that. My decision to keep Mr. Larry Silverthorn out of the meetings for six months will stand, as he did in fact, threaten verbally another person in the audience.”
Earlier during the public comment period, concerned citizen Paul Rimola offered his opinion to the board of directors.
“I want to start my comments by saying I am no fan of Larry Silverthorn,” Rimola began. He continued by saying that Silverthorn’s testimony before the board was “spot-on,” and that Rimola believes that Silverthorn “was on the ragged edge of civility, but he was pushed further by the actions of the firefighter.”
After he reached his time limit, Rimola left the meeting, but not before handing his written testimony to former Seal Rock Fire volunteer Mike Burt, who used his time to comment to complete Rimola’s thoughts.
But contention between former volunteers and Sakaris and the board go back much further than a single incident at a December board meeting.
“The main issue in everything they keep bringing up is that they want the chief fired,” Fritz said. “But we have laws and rules and regulations and standards that we have to meet that I’m not sure were being met when this department was being entirely run by volunteers. We’re trying to keep our volunteers and the public safe.”
On Nov. 8, citizens disgruntled with the current state of the department created a petition asking the board to address specific concerns, including:
• Transparency of budgeting and in financial reports;
• Review of the intergovernmental agreement between Seal Rock Fire and Central Oregon Coast Fire and Rescue, in which equipment and responders are shared between the agencies;
• Seal Rock’s inability to maintain staffing levels funded by taxpayers;
• Prioritizing replacement of outdated vehicles and equipment.
As of Thursday afternoon, 43 people signed the petition, found online at https://bit.ly/39VFlab.
Fritz, who said she couldn’t speak on behalf of the entire board, told the News-Times that threats from community members to vote down a tax levy due to come before voters during a May special election would do irrevocable harm to the department.
“If the levy doesn’t pass, we’re not going to have a fire district eventually,” she said. “With no money coming in, that means it’s going to end up dissolving the district and leaving a rural area with no coverage.”
Fritz added that Seal Rock is her home, and that her personal motivation is to strengthen the department.
“I live in the Seal Rock Rural Fire District, and I want my property and my loved ones to feel safe, and I want that for every resident in the district,” she said. “I just want the public to know that we are there for them and wholeheartedly want to do what’s best for the health and safety of this community.”