Oregon Fire District Faces $20 Million Suit by Fired Chief

The Columbia River Fire & Rescue is facing a $20 million lawsuit filed by recently fired Fire Chief Joel Medina. The suit filed in US District Court for the District of Oregon names the fire district, four members of the fire district board, IAFF Local 3215 St. Helen’s Professional Fire Fighters Association, and several current and former officers of Local 3215.

Chief Medina’s problems began earlier this year when he reported concerns about financial improprieties to the District Attorney’s Office. He also informed the Oregon Public Employees Retirement System that certain district personnel may have been improperly placed into the “Police and Fire PERS.” As a result, criminal investigations were opened by the District Attorney and the Oregon State Police, and the status of certain employees’ eligibility for pensions was called into question.

Shortly thereafter, IAFF Local 3215 issued a vote of no confidence against Chief Medina. They claimed the chief bore some of the responsibility for the financial mismanagement and called upon the CRFR Board to terminate him. The local in turn backed new members to run for election to the fire district board.

Chief Medina’s suit contends that some of those who were upset with his reporting of the improprieties helped to elect the new fire district board members, who in turn voted to remove him as chief. Quoting from the complaint:

  • On April 28, 2023, the CRFR Board met in an emergency meeting and directed CRFR’s legal counsel to engage an independent forensic certified public accountant to audit CRFR’s finances.
  • In May 2023, three new persons were elected to the Board of Directors of CRFR, to wit, Richard Fletcher, Ryan Welby, and Austin Zimbrick. All three of their campaigns were underwritten and supported by the St. Helen’s Professional Fire Fighters Association Local #3215.
  • During their respective campaigns, each of them made comments that if elected they would immediately, even at the first meeting, move to fire the Chief. The St. Helen’s Professional Fire Fighters Association Local #3215 likewise was calling for the termination of the Chief.
  • On June 30, 2023, the CRFR board met in a special board meeting to receive the report of the forensic auditor. The auditor report Executive Summary stated:
    • “Work performed by Merina+Co (MCO) in accordance with our engagement leads us to conclude that former employees of Columbia River Fire and Rescue (the District) had ample opportunity to perpetrate fraud against the District. We found internal controls over most areas of financial accounting and reporting of the District to be severely lacking in design and effectiveness in meeting common control objectives such as separation of initiation and authorization of transactions, safeguarding of assets, and effective oversight of the Finance Director and financial operations.”
  • The forensic report did not find any financial mismanagement or misconduct had been committed by the Chief.
  • On July 11, 2023, legal counsel for the Plaintiff sent a letter to the legal counsel of CRFR expressing the Plaintiff’s concerns. The letter provided in relevant part:
      • “The forensic audit found a number of former and current employees, including a new board member themselves, that are implicated in questionable financial transactions, misuse of District provided credit cards, and failure to report proper payroll to SAIF, as well as PERS issues. These same individuals are conducting a campaign to drive Chief Medina and Division Chief Sanchez from the District, and from the state of Oregon altogether. The IAFF, Local 3215, is actively making statements, through its officers and members, attempting to smear Chief Medina and Division Chief Sanchez. Some local businesses have even gone so far as to deny public accommodations to Chief Medina and Division Chief Sanchez and their families, including refusing to seat them in a restaurant where only one table was occupied, and in another seating them in an area of the restaurant where no one else was seated although there appeared to be available seating. Chief Medina and Division Chief Sanchez believe that they are being victimized by persons that are trying to cover-up their own malfeasance and wrongdoing. In doing so, they are defaming them in an effort to drive them from their employment, ruin their credibility, and drive them from the District and the area altogether. We intend to pursue all responsible parties to the full extent provided under the federal and state laws.With the new District board members taking their oath of office tonight, we are concerned, based on their prior statements during and after the recent election cycle where they were elected, that this new board may act to place Chief Medina, and possibly even Division Chief Sanchez, on administrative leave, or even move to fire them outright. Such conduct would be deemed retaliatory, and we would act swiftly to file a tort claim notice and take other legal action against the District. On another point, the meeting agenda posted to the District website for tonight’s meeting did not include any old or new agenda items, and frankly is void of any meaningful notice of action to be taken by the board at tonight’s meeting. If this is an indication of the notice that may have been posted elsewhere it would be wholly inadequate to provide notice under Oregon law. Thus, any action taken against Chief Medina or Division Chief Sanchez would be unlawful and a violation of their employment rights. We respectfully request that you advise the District that they should take no adverse employment action against Chief Medina and Division Chief Sanchez.”
  • On July 11, 2023, the Board met and the newly elected persons, Fletcher, Welby, and Zimbrick were sworn in as new CRFR board members…. The Board took no action was taken against the Chief in this meeting.
  • On August 8, 2023, the Board met in its monthly board meeting. The notice of the meeting and the agenda did not specify or reflect that the Board would consider the continued employment of the Chief during this meeting.
  • At no time did the Board provide notice to the Chief prior to the meeting that the Board was going to consider his termination for cause. This was in direct breach of the Plaintiff’s Agreement.
  • Upon the establishment of a quorum, the Board President, Kelly Niles, asked if there were any changes to the agenda. Thereupon, Board Vice-president Ryan Welby made amotion to amend the agenda and a second was made by Board member Austin Zimbrick. The substance of the motion or reason for the motion was not stated.
  • Niles then accepted the motion, as seconded, and opened it for discussion. Niles took no action to limit the discussion to the motion to amend the agenda. Whereupon Welby then stated the motion [to terminate the chief for cause].
  • The discussion of Welby’s motion to terminate the Chief continued for approximately 30 minutes.
  • Board member Gary Hudson then addressed the board members and stated, “one of the things you don’t do is you don’t convict someone on hearsay and so far I have heard a lot of allegations but have not seen anything substantial so if this is the way that this board wants to play the game I think it is going to be very expensive for the District.”
  • The board then voted to terminate the Chief on a voice vote, with Fletcher, Welby and Zimbrick voting aye, Hudson voting nay, and Niles abstaining.
  • Defendants Fletcher, Welby, Zimbrick, and Niles’ acts on August 8, 2023, constituted willful, wanton, malicious conduct.
  • Throughout the course of the Plaintiff’s employment as Fire Chief with CRFR, he has been subjected to defamation by oral and written statements made by Defendants Fletcher, Zimbrick, Welby, Niles, Peterson, Schrotzberger, K. Melton, Lockhart, Stolis, and R. Melton at public board meetings of CRFR, on Defendant St. Helen’s Professional Fire Fighters Association Local #3215, Facebook site, in text messages, and statements made to the local media newspapers, The Chronicle and The Spotlight.
  • Defendants’ statements were willful, wanton, and made with malice, without regard for the truthfulness of such statements, and with the intent to interfere with the Plaintiff’s Agreement with CRFR.

The suit alleges violations of Chief Medina’s First and Fourteenth Amendment Rights; discrimination and retaliation; aiding and abetting discrimination and retaliation; defamation; and wrongful termination. Here is a copy of the complaint:

About Curt Varone

Curt Varone has over 45 years of fire service experience and 35 as a practicing attorney licensed in both Rhode Island and Maine. His background includes 29 years as a career firefighter in Providence (retiring as a Deputy Assistant Chief), as well as volunteer and paid on call experience. He is the author of two books: Legal Considerations for Fire and Emergency Services, (2006, 2nd ed. 2011, 3rd ed. 2014, 4th ed. 2022) and Fire Officer's Legal Handbook (2007), and is a contributing editor for Firehouse Magazine writing the Fire Law column.
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