A low-simmering dispute between the union and management of the Crook County Fire and Rescue district has sunk morale, according to filings by both sides in a hearing procedure working through the Oregon Employee Relations Board.

“It definitely isn’t a positive work environment,” said Chad Grogan, president of the Crook County Firefighters Association.

Chief Matt Smith agrees the mood is bad.

A response to the union filed by the district claims “illegitimate” rumors are causing firefighters to hesitate to act in emergency situations and around the stations.

In February, the union filed a complaint against Smith and the district with the state relations board, alleging numerous instances of anti-union activity. Last month, a hearing was held at the district’s station in Prineville. Over three days, the union presented a series of purported anti-union actions dating to 2012, such as interference and retaliation against union supporters, biased promotions and an ongoing campaign to sternly discipline union members for “low-level employment actions.”

The district provides fire and medical service to Crook County and some surrounding areas. It employs more than 50 firefighters working out of three stations — the principal fire station in Prineville, a regularly staffed station in Powell Butte and a third station in Juniper Canyon that’s rarely staffed.

According to Grogan, prior to the union, workplace concerns were handled informally and with infrequent discipline. After the union was formed, the mood changed. A regime of conduct investigation took over, and an independent investigator was brought in by management to oversee a rigid adherence to the rules.

By about December 2017, a paper system was employed. “This resulted in employees feeling like they were under a microscope and that CCFR management was looking for reasons to discipline them,” reads the union’s after-­hearing report.

Grogan, a lieutenant/paramedic hired by the fire district nine years ago, has attended investigatory interviews with firefighters facing possible discipline.

Smith has worked for the district since the 1990s and was promoted to chief in 2012. He said in his testimony he was never opposed to his rank-and-file staff unionizing; he said he even agreed to run calls during the meeting so his staff can attend.

In the district’s answer filed with the relations board, it claims all disciplinary hearings involving union members have been appropriate given its obligation to investigate reports of poor work performance and serious incidents of potential misconduct.

The district also claims many of the purported anti-­union actions took place before the formation of the union in 2016 and that there’s no evidence firefighters have been promoted because of anti-union feelings. It notes union proponents, including Grogan, have received promotions during this time.

Administrative law judge Julie Reading will issue a final report in several months. That finding can be appealed to the Oregon Court of Appeals.

— Reporter: 541-383-0325, gandrews@bendbulletin.com

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