Former fire chief Pritcher plans to sue Cascade Locks

September 14, 2011

CASCADE LOCKS - Citing "defamation, intentional and reckless infliction of emotional distress and constitutional violations," former fire chief Jeff Pricher said he plans to file suit against the City of Cascade Locks.

Pricher's attorney, Tonyia Brady of Salem, notified the city administration by letter Sept. 8, stating, "This letter is intended to be a Tort Claims Notice pursuant to Oregon law."

City interim administrator Paul Koch and city attorney Alex Sosnkowski declined comment on the pending legal action.

Pricher resigned July 11 after months of controversy over budget deficits, and resulting cuts, in the city's emergency services budget. In the weeks following his departure, nine of the department's volunteer firefighters resigned or asked for leave of absence. Mutual aid agreements between Cascade Locks and other fire districts in the county were terminated on Aug. 19.

The city, and acting fire chief Jess Zerfing, are working with the county Fire Defense Board to restore the mutual aid agreements.

Following Pricher's resignation, the fire board had notified the city on July 12 that it would terminate the agreements, citing lack of a fire chief and insufficient emergency response qualifications.

Pricher was hired in February 2005 as paramedic and ambulance director, and later promoted to chief and fire marshal.

Pricher's departure from the city led, in part, to the pending recall election against Mayor George Fischer and Council members Kevin Benson, Don Haight and Tiffany Pruit, by the group Five Alarm Recall.

(That recall is on the Sept. 20 ballot - details, page right - along with the proposed recall of Lance Masters, which is not supported by the Five Alarm organization.)

At Monday night's City Council meeting, Sosnkowski gave a brief update on the tort claim notice, stating that it informs the city that the complainant reserves the right to file a lawsuit within six months of events that contributed to any allegations.

She added that she has instructed city staff to retain all records pertaining to the issues under the lawsuit, including "not destroying any records that would otherwise be allowed to be destroyed under Oregon public records law."

Brady's letter states that when Pricher began his tenure as chief, "the fire department was disorganized and most volunteers lacked important certifications.

"During Mr. Pricher's tenure, every firefighter obtained their state and national certifications, there were nine EMTs, he brought grant money to the city and significantly improved the fire department's infrastructure, including a new fire station, engine and communications system.

"In spite of that good performance, the city cut Mr. Pricher's pay, forced him to resign, on July 11, 2011."

Brady charges that in two meetings this year (Feb. 7 and June 13) the council discussed sensitive employee personnel matters in public session, and wrongfully accused Pricher of malfeasance and misappropriation of funds.

"The poor treatment of Mr. Pricher intensified after he brought up to City leaders and employees the fact that the Mayor and another councilor could not legally add structures to a KOA campground without the appropriate permits. As a result of that complaint, Mr. Pricher was retaliated against, had his pay reduced, and was forced to resign."

Brady said Tuesday, "We're obviously under the impression that what's happening in Cascade Locks city government is very troubling. This letter essentially puts the public entity on notice, but our hope is we don't have to proceed with the lawsuit or trial."

She added that "some sort of settlement discussion between the city and my client," would be the alternative. Brady said, "We haven't had any discussion of settlement terms, so it's hard to pinpoint exactly what the client is looking for."

Pricher acknowledged that he acted as "whistleblower" when he asked city elected officials about improvements made without permits to the KOA campground owned by Council Member Kevin Benson.

Pricher said he made inquiries in his authority as fire marshal, to ensure that all new construction includes sufficient water supply and fire suppression access, and "that any construction that happens is done with a permit process."

In the case of the addition of two structures at KOA, Pricher said, "It was pretty evident there was building going on that had no permits."

When asked about the timing of the Tort Claim notice, Pricher said Tuesday that his name was cited by one of the council members up for recall in a recall rebuttal statement. Those statements appear on the ballot and were published in the Sept. 7 edition of the Hood River News.

"I'm not the one being recalled," Pricher said.

"For those people who received ballots in the mail, you'll notice in the rebuttal statements of people being recalled I was named individually," he said.

Pricher referred to Don Haight's rebuttal, which includes this statement: "Why did the last council agree to (former administrator Bernard) Seeger's request for a clause in his resignation which exempted him from any wrongdoings? He quit, rather than face budget committee and council questions. A character flaw? (John) Morgan, city planner, and Jeff Pricher also quit rather than to answer questions."

Pricher said, "I have nothing to do with other people being recalled. For an individual to include me in something like that is completely inappropriate. This type of mudslinging needs to stop."

Pricher said of the disagreements that led to his departure in July, "It all comes down to a difference of opinion.

"There's a couple of camps, and unfortunately the progress between the two camps has not been successful in terms of communication," Pricher said.

"I find it difficult to imagine that I am the reason for the undoing of the financial status of the city when I have no access to making large financial decisions. I wasn't the guy who made the decision to build a new fire hall or buy a new engine. I'm a recommending guy."

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