A tort claim alleging violations of state and federal laws and contract provisions has been filed by an attorney for former Jackson County Fire District 5 Chief Darin Welburn.
Welburn was terminated Oct. 16, 2016, by the board of directors without cause. He had been hired for the position in March 2015 and received a performance review in fall 2015 that concluded he had successfully served a probationary period.
Under Oregon law, a tort gives notice of potential filing of a claim to seek damages. It must be made within 180 days of an action to maintain rights to pursue legal remedy against an Oregon governmental body.
Discussions about the claim have been held with the district’s legal representative and will continue next week, said Welburn’s attorney, Ron Guerra of Innova Legal Advisors PC in Lake Oswego.
“It’s always preferable to teach a negotiated settlement where possible,” said Guerra. “At this time, we have taken no court action to file a lawsuit simply because we are in conversation with the district. We want to invite the district to make a good-faith offer to respond to any demand that we may make.”
District 5 board of directors chair Vicki Purslow referred the Mail Tribune to legal counsel for comment. Purslow was not on the board when Welburn was fired.
“I don’t have anything to say at this time,” said Spencer Rockwell, a lawyer with Special Districts Association of Oregon, which represents the district in the matter.
Welburn was provided no opportunity to hear complaints, to clear his name or to meet with the board to discuss termination, according to the tort letter. A section of his employment agreement allows the chief to waive the requirement for a decision at a first or second public hearing.
“That language meant that the district had to provide him with notice that they would discuss possible termination of his employment agreement. Otherwise the language has no effect,” said Guerra. “He can’t waive something that he doesn’t know about.”
Among allegations in the letter are:
• Welburn was not given the opportunity for an open hearing to hear complaints or charges.
• Then-board chair Judy Baalman used her position to financially assist a relative. Baalman’ son is a firefighter with the district.
• The board failed to follow legal requirements for calling, noticing and holding meetings. The board also failed to properly use Oregon open meeting laws when it went into executive session.
• Baalman, legal counsel Martial Henault and others unnamed are liable for discrimination and retaliation against Welburn. Baalman and Henault acted as investigators, prosecutors, judges and jury and controlled information, formed the strategy and executed the plan to remove the chief.
• Welburn may have claims against the district for failure to pay all accrued vacation time under state and/or federal law.
“I believe that the facts that have been stated in the letter are accurate,” said Guerra.
The board at the time of the firing included Baalman, Cary Halligan, Mike LaNier, Bill Robertson and Kevin George. Since then, Baalman and LaNier have resigned.
Welburn had been with the district for 29 years when he was terminated. He was on a three-year contract that started Jan. 1, 2016. He declined to comment on the tort claim.
— Tony Boom is an Ashland freelance writer. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org