Cascade Locks Fire conundrum continues as volunteers call for chief's removal

August 24, 2011

The state fire marshal's office is looking into the rift at the Cascade Locks fire department, where some volunteers are resigning rather than serve under longtime volunteer Jess Zerfing, who was appointed acting chief a week ago despite protests from the volunteers.

State Deputy Fire Marshal Ted Megert attended a meeting in Cascade Locks Monday with CLFD volunteers; details below. Megert was unavailable for comment Tuesday.

In an Aug. 22 letter to the mayor and council, the Cascade Locks Volunteer Firefighter Association (CLEVSA) has asked for the "removal" of Zerfing and requested the city appoint a third party to investigate the claims behind the association's Aug. 8 vote of no confidence in Zerfing.

Mayor George Fischer said Tuesday that the city is acting "with all diligence" and that he will conduct the investigation along with Zerfing.

City Council took action Monday on two related items:

Council approved up to $36,356 to hire a paramedic or EMT which CLFD lacks following the resignation in July by former chief Jeff Pricher, a paramedic.

The city will look for a paramedic but could hire a lesser-trained EMT for the next nine months; councilors Lance Masters and Eva Zerfing called for allotting sufficient funds to pay for a paramedic.

Council approved hiring of a new interim city administrator.

Fischer said the final wording of a contract is being worked out with Paul Koch (Corrected from the print edition), who lives in Hood River and Gresham. Koch, 72, was city manager in The Dalles in the late 1980s and early 1990s. (See below for details.)

Koch said he will to start work Monday. The council hired Cook in its last item of business Monday, following executive session.

Meanwhile, CLFD's mutual aid agreements with area fire districts remain in limbo. Following the July 12 resignation of Pricher, the Fire Defense Board told the city July 15 it had until Aug. 19 to demonstrate that CLFD could fulfill mutual aid, or the agreements with the other districts would be rescinded.

Fire board president Jim Trammell said Tuesday he will confer today by phone with the other chiefs, and that termination of the mutual aid agreements is a possibility.

Firefighters said Monday that the department is down to nine active volunteers from 22 volunteers a year ago. As many as nine volunteers have resigned or requested leave of absence.

On Aug. 8, CLEVSA took a unanimous no-confidence vote against Zerfing, citing leadership inadequacies and lack of emergency management qualifications. (Eleven of CLEVSA's 14 members voted.)

One week later Zerfing was appointed acting chief by the council.

"We will not operate without mutual aid and we will not operate with unsafe conditions, and those unsafe conditions include Jess Zerfing as leader," Shawn Parrish said Tuesday, speaking as a volunteer. Parrish, Jessica Bennett and Megan Webb appointed themselves acting captains Aug. 8 following the no-confidence vote. On Aug. 15, the council appointed Zerfing acting chief.

The county-wide Fire Defense Board met Friday with Zerfing, according to Trammell.

"We listened to his explanation of how (CLFD) would provide fire services and we said 'we will give you the benefit of the doubt, and not yet terminate the (mutual aid) agreement,' and we suggested things he could do to make it better, including trying to get the captains back, because they had a logical plan (for fire department operations)," Trammell said.

The board asked Zerfing to respond to them on Monday, but Trammell said Tuesday that Zerfing did not do so.

Trammell said Tuesday that, "as far as the fire chiefs are concerned, we are trying to work with them as best as we can, but we may have no alternative but to cancel mutual aid agreements for lack of cooperation."

Fischer said Monday, "We need to set up a meeting with the volunteers to go through and discuss all the items and go through the accusations and go through both sides of it. Jess needs to be given a chance to respond to the things he's been accused of."

In a press release read at the Aug. 22 council meeting, Fischer stated, "the city council is dismayed that actions like these continue to take place, putting the city's ability to act as a responsible mutual aid partner at risk. The mayor and acting chief will be investigating the issue as well."

(The reference to the leave of absence was the only official acknowledgement of the requests made by council Monday.)

Zerfing was scheduled to give a presentation to the council Monday, as announced by council president Tiffany Pruit, but Zerfing did not appear.

Zerfing said Tuesday morning, "I had no idea about the meeting. I was not invited to give a presentation."

Zerfing declined to comment on the vote of no confidence, and said he does not know how many volunteers are currently willing to respond to calls.

The mutual aid issue came up Sunday when a hiker broke her leg on the Mount Defiance trail, and West Side Fire Department volunteers and others responded, along with two Cascade Locks volunteers. Only one Cascade Locks volunteer was able to make it the 3.5 miles to the hiker; the second had to return to the engine, according to Trammell, who is West Side fire marshal as well as president of the county fire defense board.

Parrish said Zerfing arrived 40 minutes late for a 6 p.m. meeting at the fire hall on Monday. State Deputy Fire Marshal Ted Megert was present with volunteers Shawn Parrish and John Johnson, and when City Council member Kevin Benson appeared, the volunteers asked him to leave. Benson said he was there representing the mayor and council, so the volunteers and Megert prepared to move the meeting to a location on private property.

Meanwhile, some firefighters are turning in their resignations or leaves of absence requests.

Craig Martin turned in his resignation Monday, citing the no-confidence vote against Zerfing.

"I cannot nor will not in good judgment on my part, serve at this time under Chief Zerfing's command," Martin wrote in an Aug. 22 letter to the city.

Firefighter Jesse Matheny has asked for a leave of absence, saying, "the community and volunteers have provided numerous suggestions to resolve these issues including warning of the consequences of their actions prior to council taking them, all of which have been ignored.

"A 'turn-down' is a situation where (a firefighter) has determined they cannot undertake an assignment as given and they are unable to negotiate an alternative solution." I feel this is the point we have reached and I must 'turn down' my assignment."

Zerfing said Tuesday he does not know how the fire department will function with nine volunteers.

Fischer, who has been sidelined for two weeks following knee surgery, praised the dedication of Council President Tiffany Pruit and the other councilors, as well as city staff.

"There are so many things at loose ends for the council, and they have been working so hard, taking on a lot of the tasks I have not been able to," Fischer said.

Newly-hired interim administrator Paul Koch said his contract is scheduled to be ratified retroactive to his first day of work, Aug. 29, in the council's first meeting in September.

Koch has a Bachelor Degree from Oregon State University in parks and recreation.

Fischer contacted Koch and one other candidate last week after consulting with League of Oregon Cities and local agencies to get a list of names. He said Cook is the right man for the challenges facing Cascade Locks.

"He has the ability to control difficult situations," Fischer said. "Right now with everything going in Cascade Locks we need someone who can be here and go through it all, and not have a problem with this issue," said Fischer, adding that "I went through the whole scenario, I left no stone unturned about what's going on in Cascade Locks. He knew exactly what he was getting into."

Koch said he has homes in Hood River and Gresham. The city will pay Koch $5,000 per month, plus the cost of a motel room in Cascade Locks four nights a week, because Koch wants to live in Cascade Locks while working for the city.

"I have found over the years that having someone who transfers in every day is not in the best interest of the community," Koch said.

Since working for The Dalles, Koch has traveled the Northwest doing interim city administration or economic development work, including 18 months in Pilot Rock, where he organized the city budget, and oversaw infrastructure improvements and downtown revitalization projects.

"I take an interim assignment every two years or so to see if what I recommend to cities can be done and work, and it usually does," Koch said.

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