City settled with fire chief to avoid age lawsuit

Severance package included a payment of $71,800

City officials agreed to pay former Medford Fire-Rescue Chief Dave Bierwiler a $71,800 severance package to head off a potential age discrimination lawsuit, according to a statement released Wednesday by Medford City Manager Eric Swanson.

Swanson released the full termination agreement as the result of a Mail Tribune public information request.

The city had originally declined to disclose the amount of money it paid to Bierwiler as part of his settlement. However, Jackson County District Attorney Beth Heckert ruled in favor of the Mail Tribune's appeal to see the full document.

Swanson attached a statement to the documents explaining the process surrounding Bierwiler's firing. He disputed Bierwiler's claims that the termination was the result of the former chief not supporting a proposed effort to combine some services between Medford Fire-Rescue and Jackson County Fire District No. 3.

Swanson said the proposed consolidation was never mentioned when the two sides reached the settlement.

"That issue never came up in our conversation," Swanson wrote in the statement accompanying the severance agreement document. "Instead, Mr. Bierwiler only ever claimed age discrimination."

The city denies that it terminated Bierwiler, 63, because of his age; however, these court battles can be costly and can take up a large chunk of staff time, Swanson said.

In effect, Swanson argued, it was cheaper to pay the outgoing chief the $71,800 in severance money and avoid a protracted litigation case.

Swanson noted that city employees who occupy management positions are "at will" employees who can be terminated for any or no reason. City rules stipulate that the city manager can provide up to six months in salary as severance money to outgoing management employees.

Swanson also wrote that Bierwiler and the city signed a non-disclosure agreement meant to keep the termination documents from public view.

Bierwiler has since told the Mail Tribune he did not object to the disclosure of the documents.

Swanson pointed out in his statement that this contradicts the former chief's actions of agreeing to the non-disclosure agreement in the first place.

"While we decline to further challenge the District Attorney's decision, we think the policy of disclosure under these circumstances sets a bad precedent," Swanson writes. "In general, courts enforce confidential settlement agreements in order to encourage resolution of disputes. By not allowing governments to participate in confidential settlements, our ability to resolve disputes will be hampered, with a result that local governments will spend more time and money fighting claims instead of serving the public."

In her ruling, however, Heckert said if the city were allowed to keep the agreement with Bierwiler confidential, "any time the City didn't want information disclosed, it could be agreed upon to include a confidential clause."

She also wrote that the public "does have a legitimate interest" in knowing how much Bierwiler was compensated after he was terminated.

In addition to the $71,800 in severance money, Bierwiler was paid for 480 hours in unused vacation and holiday leave time, per city rules.

Bierwiler originally told various media outlets that he retired in the spring for personal reasons. However, documents obtained by the Mail Tribune showed that he was terminated.

Swanson and Bierwiler could not be reached for comment Wednesday evening.

Reach reporter Chris Conrad at 541-776-4471, or e-mail cconrad@mailtribune.com.



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