Crook County Fire and Rescue

Name: Gary Abrams

Age: Not ­available

Residence: Prineville

Profession: Firefighter/paramedic with Redmond Fire and Rescue

Name: Jerry Brummer

Age: 70

Residence: Prineville

Profession: Crook County commissioner

Name: Jim Dean

Age: Not ­available

Residence: Prineville

Profession: Former Prineville fire chief, retired

Name: Beth Mitchell

Age: 45

Residence: Prineville

Profession: Firefighter/paramedic with Redmond Fire and Rescue

Name: George Ponte

Age: 63

Residence: Prineville

Profession: Retired forester and wildland fire manager

Many rural fire district boards enjoy collegial relations with their professional unions.

Not Crook County Fire and Rescue.

A union-management dispute has been part of life at CCFR for the past two years — some would say much longer — and is now playing out in two contested races in the May election for seats on the district’s board of directors.

The union, the Crook County Firefighters Association, has alleged anti-union conduct by Chief Matt Smith and other district leaders. It endorsed two candidates challenging incumbents in the May election.

Gary Abrams and Beth Mitchell are both firefighters for the Redmond Fire Department who live in Crook County.

Abrams is challenging former Chief Jim Dean. Mitchell is taking on Jerry Brummer, also a Crook County commissioner.

The Mitchell-Brummer race is joined by retired forester George Ponte.

The district

With its roots as one of the oldest fire companies in Oregon, the CCFR began by vote of the Crook County Commission in 1997 and today encompasses 450 square miles. Twenty-four employees, including student EMTs, work out of the main station in Prineville, built in 1977, a partially staffed substation at Powell Butte and another at Juniper Creek.

According to the district’s strategic plan, the board’s main priorities include increasing staffing at the substations. The district has a fast-growing population and a low tax rate. With budget season starting next month, the board has committed to not asking voters to support a bond.

The background

Last April, the union filed an unfair labor practices complaint against the district with the state Employee Relations Board alleging that Chief Smith held investigatory hearings in retaliation to firefighters who unionized in 2017.

A three-day hearing was held in October where the parties met before an administrative law judge and called numerous witnesses. ERB administrative law judge ­Julie Reading agreed with the union on two of its three complaints, finding Smith had acted with “anti-union animus.” On the third point, she agreed with Smith and the district.

Neither party was happy with the ruling, and both filed objections.

As the district considered settling with the union, board members learned from Reading that she’d taken a job at Tedesco Law Group in Portland — the same firm that represented the union in its labor complaint.

Fire board members were upset with the news, according to a jointly authored statement read at the board’s most recent meeting.

“The Fire Board is deeply troubled by this information and is greatly concerned about the ethical and professional conduct of the (administrative law judge) and association attorney,” it reads.

The letter accuses Reading of having improper contact with the union’s attorney, Jason Weyand, regarding a possible position with Tedesco during the period when Reading was writing her opinion in the CCFR dispute.

At the April 18 meeting, the board voted to file a complaint against Weyand with the Oregon State Bar, and one against Reading with the Oregon Government Ethics Commission.

“The district has reason to believe that (administrative law judge) Reading may have violated ethics rules by failing to disclose a potential conflict of interest while presiding over and adjudicating a legal matter for the Employee Relations Board and by use of public office for personal financial gain,” reads a letter to the ethics commission by board member Jim Dean.

In its public statements, the board has stopped short of accusing the union of any involvement, saying it didn’t wish to “prolong conflict.”

For her part, Reading said she waited until the day she issued her recommended order before meeting with Tedesco partners. She said she had “no expectation of an offer” and wasn’t sure she’d take a position if one was offered. She said one came the next day, and she took a day to think it over, accepting the position March 18.

“I knew at that point I would not have further involvement in the case, and that any future handling of the case would be by the (Employee Relations Board) or possibly another (administrative law judge),” Reading wrote in a letter submitted with the fire board’s ethics complaint.

Union president Chad ­Grogan called the focus on Reading a misdirection and disagreed she was biased.

“The District would have the public ignore the three long days of testimony provided by CCFR firefighters and supervisors and the mound of documents detailing Chief Smith’s long history of ignoring the law, and instead believe that the Judge’s ruling was a result of bias against the District,” Grogan wrote to The Bulletin. “This is just another example of Chief Smith’s inability to accept responsibility for his conduct.”

The union has decried a recent 2% raise for Smith approved by the board. In early April, union members supported a vote of no confidence against Smith, outlining nine complaints against him, including that he withheld overtime and lied to and retaliated against union members.

The district’s lawyer, ­Steven Schuback said the district acknowledged the vote of no confidence and had decided to find an outside consultant to assess the union’s concerns.

The assessment could cost up to $20,000.

“I don’t have a comment,” said Smith, citing pending legal action.

The candidates

Gary Abrams has been a firefighter in some form for the past 20 years, bringing experience with him when he joined CCFR as a student-­EMT in 2002. He and fellow candidate Beth Mitchell share endorsements not only from the Crook County firefighters union, but the Bend and Redmond unions, as well as the Oregon State Firefighters Council.

“Being that I’m not part of the local 5115 union, I can’t really say why they passed a vote of no confidence in their Fire Chief,” he said. “I do know that a vote like this is not one to be approached lightly and has significant implications. The most important thing that I can hope for is that when the firefighters are needed to respond to an emergency, they are able to do so efficiently.”

Budgeting with a steady hand is key for Jerry Brummer, a county commissioner and fire board member who oversees the county natural resources staff.

He’s proud the county is debt-free on its fire stations and that plans are in place to replace aging water tenders and fire engines. He thinks by next budget season, the district will be able to fund three additional full-time firefighter-­paramedic positions.

“I do think it’s important for people to know we do have a plan,” he said. “We have a long-term plan for expanding to meet the growing needs of the community, and I feel like we’re doing a pretty good job.”

Former Prineville fire chief Jim Dean has said much of the union dispute can be explained as the natural growing pains fire agencies experience when staffs vote to unionize.

“I’m pro-union,” he said. “If I was a firefighter today, I’d be in the union. It’s just unfortunate everything that’s happened. But everything will work out, I believe. Management and the union are still figuring it out.”

Beth Mitchell was drawn to Central Oregon from Eugene in 1994 for its natural amenities. She’s worked in emergency services since 1996, when she began EMT training and volunteering for the Sisters-­Camp Sherman Fire District. As a homeowner in the Juniper Canyon area, she’d like to see the substation there fully staffed.

“This is an area with a very high danger for wildfire in the urban interface,” she said.

She said transparency and accountability are critical on the board.

“The vote of no confidence against Chief Smith that was passed by the union firefighters in Crook County is disturbing, and I hope to learn more about the issue should I get elected,” she said.

Prineville resident George Ponte is a relative outsider to the labor dispute at CCFR, though he’s attended most board meetings for the past couple years. The retired forester with the Oregon Department of Forestry hasn’t held elected office, but he’s served for the past three years on the Crook County Planning Commission.

He thinks his background in wildland fire management would lend itself well to the district.

“I’m familiar with the challenges the board and the chief are facing,” he said.

“He needs to reestablish respect and communication,” he said. “I’m just trying to make a difference to the community.”

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

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