Dozens of community members turned up at a recent Fire District Board meeting looking for an explanation.
by Christina Ammon
Dozens of community members turned up for the October 19th Board Meeting at the Applegate Fire District station. At issue was the dismissal of Fire Chief Mike McLaughlin, who was put on administrative leave without explanation after the board received a complaint from a volunteer. The community turned up at the meeting hoping for more details from the elected Board of Directors.
The Chief’s unexplained dismissal sparked a social media scuffle around two central questions: Why wasn’t there transparency about the reasons that the Fire Chief was put on leave? And: Did the Fire District board follow proper dismissal procedures?
While the crowd waited outside for the doors to open, the gravel parking lot baked in the sun. This year, dry midsummer temperatures have persisted through October– a scorching reminder of how fighting fire has become more central than ever.
The doors opened, the crowed assembled, and the agenda started off on a positive note: honoring long-time Applegate Fire District supporters: Sandy Johnson and Sue Ross.
The discussion about Chief McLaughlin started soon after, with the board converting the Chief’s title from “separation” to “termination.” Rob Underwood, the board President, said that this change in terminology was the at the Chief’s request.
The public was then invited to comment. Underwood, under the guidance of an attorney, stated that no questions would be answered at the meeting, but that the board would reach out to the speakers later by email.
The public’s comments were wide ranging—from support for the board’s actions, to skepticism.
Daniel Pelissier was the first to speak. He was concerned about the tax burden on community. “I understand he was terminated without cause, which means he gets seven months of severance– $100,000 that’s paid to him and that’s just because this board was too afraid to take on Mike… Firing him without cause is the coward’s way out…$100,000 is a lot of money coming out of our pockets and there will be repercussions.”
Mike Parker, who previously served on the budget committee as well as on the board, focused on the issue of transparency: “I think this board should show the community a high level of respect and share with us in an open meeting. I understand the terminology of “without cause,” but we should have some input from this board as to why Chief McLaughlin was terminated.”
Mike Koonce was next, and he defended the termination agreement. He has over 32 years of fire service experience in the Rogue Valley, and recently retired from Applegate Fire District. He was also the Fire Chief in Williams for ten years. Koonce said that since Chief McLaughlin was a contracted employee, he could be dismissed for any reason. He also criticized Chief McLaughlin for having a written agreement with the previous board that none of the members were allowed to talk personally with any of the fire district personal without his permission.
“Now to me, that’s a huge red flag,” he said.
Koonce also had issues with the Chief’s management style. He said that people who are opposed to the termination don’t have all of the facts. “I used to have to work for the man and I know what it was like and none of you would enjoy it,” he said. “What you see in public is different than what happens here.”
Priscilla Weaver, a well-known telephone land line activist, was next and lightened the crowd’s mood with a joke. “First of all, I’m not going to talk about telephones…”
She said that the lack of transparency around the Chief’s dismissal led her to conclude that there is some private agenda at play. She said that as a member of the community, she took offense to this secrecy from a board that is meant to respond to citizen’s needs.
“What I would like to suggest,” she said, “is that since the Chief was fired without cause-is that the board would take its fiduciary duties a little bit more seriously and consult with the people you to serve. That’s us.”
She concluded her comments saying, “This is not just about fairness to Chief McLaughlin, but to all of us.”
Autumn Macivor, who volunteered with the District spoke next, reminding the crowd that they elected the board; if the community did not like how the board was doing its job, the members would be up for reelection at some point and could be replaced. He personally, felt in support of the board. “I trust them all,” he said.
Whether people agree with the Chief’s dismissal or not, there was some concern whether the board followed the correct procedures in handling this issue with the Chief. Board member Craig Hamm (owner of the Ruch Country Store) was not at the fire meeting, but on a KOBI5 news story said that board did not. Hamm was quoted in the news story saying, “Rob Underwood, the president …[he’s] not following protocol, policy, public laws.”
Underwood says that is false information that it stirred up the community for no reason. He also said that the board was merely honoring the employer-employee confidentiality they were bound to and that Chief McLaughlin was was entitled to. “We are not trying to hide anything,” he said.
He said that more information would be released to the public soon, including a timeline of how the events unfolded. But Underwood cautioned that it might not include all the details the public is hoping to hear.
When asked if Chief McLaughlin could speak publicly about the issue, Underwood said that’s where things are murky. “If Chief McLaughlin wants everyone to know, that’s up to him.” At the same time, he said that the Chief and the District signed an agreement not to defame each other.
Technicalities aside, it was clear in the meeting that many in the Applegate community felt betrayed by the board’s actions, if not in law, then in spirit.
As more fires break out, residents feel more and more vulnerable. And in an unincorporated rural area like the Applegate Valley, this elected Fire District board is the closest thing to direct government that the community has. In this sense, for some, the abrupt “termination agreement” with Chief McLaughlin feels larger than just a challenging personnel issue, but also a bit like a slight on democracy itself.
“This IS local government,” said community member Laura Ahearn.
The Fire District Board of Directors will be releasing more information to the public soon. You can find it here on Applegate Valley Connect.