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City, county navigate fire chief service proposals

ASHLAND — During a virtual meeting of the Jackson County Fire District No. 5 board Tuesday, Director Vicki Purslow said she felt “blindsided” by the apparent dropping of District No. 5 for consideration of joint fire chief services with the city of Ashland.

Purslow said the time feels ripe for a partnership between the two entities, after living through a “shared disaster,” referencing the Almeda fire Sept. 8.

District No. 5 Chief Charles Hanley said during the fire episode, as authority over incident management transitioned from the city of Ashland to a unified command structure, the state and back to Hanley for the remainder of the incident, Ashland city leadership asked for a recommendation for an interim fire chief to help ease transitional periods, having assumed Hanley would be too busy with the Almeda fire.

Hanley said he didn’t argue or affirm the implications of his workload at the time, and provided a recommendation for a fire chief with experience suitable for Ashland Fire and Rescue.

Hanley said he received an email Sept. 16 delineating the city’s intent to initiate an internal expedited recruitment process for a limited duration fire chief and to continue discussions about potentially combining fire chief services.

“That was the last conversation that I had,” Hanley said. “Really, not a lot of contact since the fire.”

AFR began discussions with District No. 5 in May about a dual chief, who would direct both the district and city’s fire services while other organizational structures were considered, according to Ashland interim City Administrator Adam Hanks. During a City Council meeting in November, Hanks said concerns over timing and Hanley’s workload cooled momentum behind the idea.

In November, Hanks clarified low staffing within AFR led the city to pursue a full time fire chief to lead the organization rather than hire a shared or dual chief to cover both jurisdictions.

Hanks spoke to the benefit of regionalization by partnering with District No. 3 to share training opportunities, technology, software tools and equipment purchases to help bring jurisdictions that don’t share a border into closer coordination.

Hanley said he met with AFR acting Fire Chief Ralph Sartain Tuesday to review part of a report on the Almeda fire investigation.

AFR Division Chief Chris Chambers said a full report on the suspected cause of the fire will be released by the Ashland Police Department when the investigation is complete. No estimated release date has been set.

On Nov. 17, Ashland City Council approved an intergovernmental agreement with District 3, also approved by the District 3 board, which determined Ashland’s next fire chief will provide administrative, management, budgeting and reporting services to the city as an employee of District 3.

When the recommended appointee declined to accept the fire chief position, Hanks said the city would prepare supplemental options to fill the role through collaboration with District 3 leadership and other regional fire partners.

“We’re regrouping and looking still, with the assistance of Chief Horton, District 3, and others in regional fire leadership on charting a new set of options to look at filling that position,” Hanks said at the Dec. 1 Ashland City Council meeting.

Alternative approaches to the IGA will be brought back to both the City Council and District 3 board for approval when next steps become clearer, he said. District 5 was not named during the meeting.

“Even [with] approval to sign an IGA, we would not slide a different person in there without obviously coming back and revisiting the entire thing with council,” Hanks continued.

Recognizing her reluctance to go forward with the initial plan, Councilor and Mayor-elect Julie Akins repeated a call to prioritize diversity, equity and inclusion principles in a transparent hiring process going forward — echoed as a necessity by other councilors.

Akins voted against passing the IGA with District 3 Nov. 17, after which Ashland Firefighters Local 1269 faulted her for contributing to social media messaging they alleged led to a “major setback” from an otherwise positive step forward for public safety in the area.

In her own Facebook post, Akins criticized a limited duration fire chief service term as a method of spending money to train a “rented fire chief” whose services will eventually transfer to the fire district, and further questioned why the decision wasn’t left to the next mayor and City Council, in the best interest of budget security.

During the Dec. 1 meeting, Councilor Stephen Jensen said after a positive virtual conversation with the recommended appointee, Devon Brown, a series of social media interactions seemed to send developing relationships immediately south, and may have compromised the city’s ability to attract qualified candidates.

“This episode was not the city of Ashland’s finest hour,” Jensen said.

Jensen made a motion to direct city staff to draft an apology and explanation letter to AFR, the District 3 board Ashland Firefighter’s Local 1269 with a statement from the City Council affirming its commitment to abide by the spirit and letter of rules that guide public interactions.

The letter would attempt to “neutralize” the snafu, counteract indications that Ashland is a difficult community in which to work and acknowledge a lost opportunity with regional stakeholders, he said.

“I’d like them to know that we didn’t enter into these negotiations to have it all fall apart at the end,” Councilor Dennis Slattery said in agreement.

The motion passed 4-2, with Akins voting no. Councilor Stefani Seffinger said she did not understand enough about what transpired via social media and also voted no.

“I disagree with this,” Akins said of the letter, reiterating the value of holding true to values of diversity, equity and inclusion consistently and transparently with every hiring decision. “I still don’t feel that we have a clear path forward as to why we’re even doing this District 3 thing.”

Councilor Tonya Graham said any concerns should have been brought forward before city staff dedicated substantial time to compiling the IGA.

Slattery added that given the time offered to discuss nuances of this hiring decision during previous council meetings, raising equity as a key objection now seems late. Slattery said he is not familiar with any “behind the scenes decision making” that would have compromised the transparency provided through public City Council meetings regarding this discussion, and called for a better “collaborative spirit” come January with the new governmental structure.

Hanks said Wednesday a draft letter will be presented to the City Council for review in the Dec. 15 meeting agenda packet this week.

“It will not be sent out until council is able to review, discuss and make a formal motion for staff action,” he said.

Contact Ashland Tidings reporter Allayana Darrow at adarrow@rosebudmedia.com and follow her on Twitter @AllayanaD.

Jackson County Fire District No. 5 acquired the $299,000 Model 34 Type 3 engineTuesday. IAFF Local 2596 Firefighters, Directors and community members kept with tradition and pushed it into the apparatus bay.