Criminal inquiry into FD finances leads to firing of Ore. fire chief
Termination of Columbia River Fire & Rescue Fire Chief Joel Medina follows two earlier no-confidence votes from the union
By Maxine Bernstein
ST. HELENS, Ore. — Joel Medina, the fire chief who spurred a criminal inquiry this year into former and current employees of Columbia River Fire & Rescue for improper pension benefits and unchecked credit card spending, was suddenly ousted by three newly elected fire district board members Tuesday night.
The union-backed board members, in their second meeting on the board, added a new item to the monthly agenda at the last minute and voted to immediately terminate Medina.
The decision followed two votes of no confidence in Medina this year by the local firefighters union, which is in arbitration with the St. Helens-based district over a disputed contract.
The new district board members then quickly appointed battalion chief, Michael Gorsuch, as the interim fire chief. Gorsuch appeared by video at the meeting.
One of the new board members who voted to fire Medina, Richard Fletcher, had been identified in a forensic audit of district finances as among a handful of former employees who had been improperly classified to receive higher firefighter retirement benefits even though they were ineligible. Fletcher worked as a mechanic for the fire district.
Fletcher, who now serves as treasurer of the board, joined with board members Ryan Welby and Austin Zimbrick in the 3-1 vote to fire the chief. They supported a resolution that Welby passed out to members and read aloud that claimed the chief needed to be “discharged for cause,” citing alleged dishonesty, misappropriation of funds and discourteous treatment of employees, volunteers and the public.
Fletcher argued that under Medina, he’s seen the “lowest morale” in the fire department, “lowest everything here under Medina.”
Zimbrick said, “I think we have a lot of unhappy employees. I believe in my heart we’re doing the right thing for the community.”
Gary Hudson, who has served on the board for six years and retired from the fire district as a division chief in 2002, was the lone member who objected. He later resigned from the board in protest.
“If you think this doesn’t look like collusion, it’s kind of embarrassing — another nail ... for the district and you all,” Hudson said as he voted against ousting Medina.
Hudson said he was caught off guard and “had no idea” about the resolution that had been added to the agenda during Tuesday’s meeting.
Hudson asked Welby to explain what the term “for cause” means. Welby responded that he was nervous and not a good public speaker and asked if Hudson had a specific question about the resolution he read.
Zimbrick added that the “for cause” can be seen “on the face of all the firefighters out there.”
The new board chair, Kelly Niles, abstained. He said he didn’t support the chief’s firing but would have supported placing him on administrative leave instead.
The Columbia County prosecutor’s office and state police earlier this year launched a criminal investigation into the fire department’s past handling of finances after Medina raised questions about unusual credit card expenses, improper pension classifications and the handling of the district’s nearly $13 million budget.
The previous board, which governs the fire district, also hired a forensic auditor to investigate district finances after Medina brought the concerns to its members.
The auditor identified eight former non-firefighter employees who were enrolled for years in the state retirement system at a more lucrative rate that is reserved for only paid firefighters.
Columbia River Fire & Rescue currently has 35 full-time paid firefighters.
The previous board hired Medina in December 2020 from out of state after a national search. Medina last year hired another outsider and former colleague of his, Jimmy Sanchez, to serve as division chief of finance to help make sense of the district’s spending and budget after the longtime civilian finance manager left.
Medina was the first to question the improper pension classifications, drawing ire from those directly affected in the district and others also misclassified from nearby fire districts. He also eliminated three administrative jobs to reduce district spending.
Three women who lost their jobs at the fire district sued the agency after they left, alleging sexual harassment by Medina. The three say they were subjected to inappropriate sexual comments and a hostile work environment.
Medina has denied the allegations and claims the suit is part of a campaign against him for trying to protect taxpayer dollars. The suit amounts to retaliation and discrimination, said Medina, who is Latino.
“The district has a lot of significant problems and acquiescing to the union isn’t the answer,” Medina told The Oregonian/OregonLive after he was fired. He walked out of the meeting after board members directed him to turn in his badge and uniform immediately.
Medina said the district needs “experienced, educated serious people to make difficult decisions to tackle long-standing problems, and that is what my administration has done.”
Aaron Schrotzberger, president of the St. Helens Professional Fire Fighters Association IAFF Local 3215, later in the meeting cited the union’s two votes of no confidence in Medina, which complained of Medina’s “unprofessionalism,” his " inability to manage” district finances and what the union called his “failed leadership.” The union also called for the firing of Sanchez and Deputy Chief Eric Smythe.
The union remains locked in a contract dispute with the district.
The two board members who negotiated the contract, Hudson and former board chair Hans Feige, said during a recent arbitration hearing that they negotiated an across-the-board 2% raise for all employees, with a $7,500 bonus stipend for paramedics. They said they wanted to get rid of the prior 10% premium pay previously afforded to firefighters who are paramedics and instead offer the stipend.
But the contract that was signed by both sides included a wage table as an appendix, which rolled in the 10% premium pay for firefighter paramedics. That would mean the district would pay firefighter paramedics the 10% premium, plus a 2% across-the-board-increase, and the $7,500 stipend.
District representatives said that’s not what it had negotiated in the language of the contract, and the district won’t be able to afford such increases without layoffs. The union filed a grievance.
“Did the district at any time raise the issue that, in effect, you were double dipping — you were getting 10% plus the lump sum?” arbitrator Eric Lindauer asked union vice president Aaron Peterson during a recent arbitration hearing.
Peterson said the union assumed the district was aware of what was in the table before it signed the contract. He said no one from the district raised any concerns about what was in the table until after the contract was ratified.
“I think there’s responsibilities on both sides in not making clear what their intentions were during the course of their negotiations,” Lindauer said. He urged the two sides to try to reach a resolution on their own. If not, the arbitrator said he expected to issue his ruling in October.
Medina’s sudden termination and the union’s call for the firing of his finance division chief and deputy chief spurred the resignations hours later of two of three Columbia County Civil Service Commission members. Commission members Tammy Armentrout and Mouhamad Zaher submitted their resignations by email. The commission reviews potential new hires for the county and sets bylaws governing recruitment and promotions.
“I learned that tonight this board terminated Chief Medina and entertained termination of District Chief Sanchez, and Deputy Chief Smythe. I can no longer in good conscience support an organization that treats these individuals and the administrative staff with the disrespect and disloyalty that has been in abundant display over the past several months,” Armentrout wrote by email.
“I will not be a bystander to it. The actions of the current board are clearly and intentionally putting this community at risk for their own personal financial gain. This is very clearly evidenced many times, but most recently by nominating and electing a person who is under investigation for financial wrongdoing as the treasurer of the organization.”
By Wednesday afternoon, Hudson, the lone board member who objected to the chief’s termination, resigned his seat on the board, effective immediately.
Hudson said at the meeting that it appeared the new board members who supported the chief’s firing were “bought and paid for” by the union and acting on “unsubstantiated” and “flimsy” allegations. He also pointed out that they were flatly acting against the advice of attorneys representing the district and that he feared the district would face significant liability with such a move.
“When you go against the advice of legal counsel, you don’t have a very wise and deliberative group, in my opinion,” Hudson said. “I will not put my family and my pension at risk. It was best for me to resign.”
The chief is likely to challenge his termination.
While his contract says he’s an “at will” employee, it also says he “shall receive notice” of any charges against him that may lead to a termination and will be “afforded an opportunity to refute the charges” either verbally or in writing before the district’s board and to have an attorney present on his behalf. If terminated “without cause,” the district must provide him 15 days’ written notice, according to the contract.