Fire officials resign over e-mails, texts
Two division chiefs resigned from Jackson County Fire District No. 3 in November in the midst of an internal investigation that found they had sent personal e-mails and text messages via district equipment, according to public records recently released to the Mail Tribune.
Both Brenda Messmer, division chief of administration, and Ken Johnson, division chief and fire marshal, admit they violated district policy, but say the district appeared to want something new when it offered to accept their resignations.
"The board clearly wanted change and that's why I chose to resign," Johnson said.
Messmer, who had been the subject of a harassment complaint filed and withdrawn last summer, said her legal counsel advised her that the district had enough evidence to terminate her, "so I felt I might as well raise my head and resign."
Board members Judy Hall, Lois Hawley Wilson, John Curtis and Lynn Corwin referred all questions about the investigation and resignations to fire Chief Dave Hard, who became chief Nov. 30 but was authorized to start handling personnel matters Nov. 9. The board's newest member, Jim Gillin, elected as a write-in candidate in May 2007, didn't return phone calls seeking comment. Union officials also declined to comment in deference to the new chief.
"The board was made aware of issues, ordered an investigation, then began taking appropriate action," Hard said, noting that some of the issues predated his selection for the district's top job.
"There is accountability at every level of the organization," he continued.
The district had felt stress at every level as it went through two searches for a new chief in less than two years, said Messmer, who served as interim chief from January through May 2006, after 25-year district veteran Randy Iverson retired, and from March until November 2007, after Chief Barry Hutchings resigned.
Messmer, who started at the district as a clerk in 1979 and claimed she didn't want to be the permanent chief, said tension was high as people took on extra duties in the absence of a chief.
"Anytime there is a stall in efforts to build and grow and be progressive, people start questioning where things are going," she said.
In July, Jason Allen, an engineer at the district's White City station, complained to the board that Messmer had harassed him by commenting, "Do you not make enough money?" as he passed her door after changing his tax withholding April 25.
In his complaint, dated July 11 and released to the Mail Tribune Monday in response to a public records request, Allen wrote that he took some time off to decide what to do, and was worried that he would face retaliation for speaking out against the acting chief. He said he dreaded working with Messmer, stopped enjoying his job and noted negativity and discontent among his co-workers.
"I feel her actions were unprofessional, dishonest, immoral, and unresponsive, however, not out of character for her," Allen wrote.
An attempt Monday to reach Allen was unsuccessful.
Messmer said her remark wasn't directed at Allen.
The district hired Portland attorney Akin Blitz to look into the complaint in August, but the investigation found that the remark didn't violate any law, Hard said. Both Hard and Messmer said the complaint was ultimately withdrawn.
At an executive session Oct. 18, Blitz met with the board to consider records exempt from public inspection. Hard, who wasn't present, said things "came to a head" at that meeting. He and board members declined to disclose what happened there.
Messmer and Johnson said they didn't know Blitz was continuing an investigation after the harassment complaint was withdrawn.
"I couldn't speculate what drove the next level of scrutiny," Johnson said.
However, he said the scrutiny was intense and anyone looking that hard for a violation was bound to find one.
The investigation, part of which was provided to the Mail Tribune after a public records request, found seven personal e-mail messages between Johnson and Messmer, including photos and links to Web sites between April and November. At least 43 personal messages between the two from August to November were recovered using forensic techniques on district-owned phones reclaimed from Johnson and Messmer.
An executive session related to complaints and possible discipline of public employees was held Nov. 9, with Blitz and a human resources consultant working for him presenting a report to the board and to Hard, as chief select.
Johnson and Messmer said that after that meeting, they were notified that they had been placed on administrative leave and the district was prepared to accept their resignations. She resigned Nov. 19 and he resigned Nov. 26.
The fire marshal's job is being advertised now, with applications due Feb. 27. The district is analyzing the need for a division chief of administration, Hard said.
The salary range for the fire marshal position is $6,778 to $8,239 monthly, the same as all division chief positions at the district, Hard said. Both Messmer and Johnson were paid at the top of that range.
Hard said he has met with all employees and volunteers at the district and knows that people are wondering what happens next after a string of difficult transitions, but he is confident the district can move forward and maintain excellence. The district also has hired the human resources consultant who worked with Blitz, Judy Clarke, to serve as ombudsman for one year to help with communication and problem solving.
"This is a great fire district with great people," Hard said. "Everyone has issues sometimes."
Reach reporter Anita Burke at 776-4485, or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.