By ERIC A. HOWALD
Of the Keizertimes

The four candidates vying for two seats on Marion County Fire District No. 1 board agree that the largest issue at stake is the future stability of the district itself.

In the election, incumbents Randy Franke (Position 2) and Orville Downer (Position 1) face challenges from Bob Palmer and Andrea Batchelor, respectively. Ballots in the election, which will go out next week, need to be returned by Election Day, May 17.

The contentious races come amid personnel disputes involving Chief J. Kevin Henson and the district’s unions of career and volunteer firefighters as well as outside threats from neighboring fire districts and departments that continue to shrink its tax base.

To combat the latter, MCFD1 and Turner Rural Fire District joined forces to create the Willamette Valley Fire and Rescue Authority, an umbrella organization that, as it continues to develop, hopes to partner with other districts to share training and financial services and cut down on overhead in a time of universally-collapsing budgets.

“We have a reasonably good start, but our internal issues have diverted our attention and we’ve not been able to put as much attention to WVFRA,” Franke said. “We need to resolve those so we’re in a position for other districts to seriously entertain forming partnerships with us.”

Franke is running for his second term on the board and said one of the major learning experiences in his time on the board was realizing just how deep personnel problems were running at the district. Friction between Henson and rank-and-file employees at the district have reached a boiling point more than once during the past three years as Henson implemented changes at the direction of the board.

“While things looked okay on the surface, there were cracks in that organization that I did not recognize as a new board member,” Franke said. “It’s like driving along a county road and running over a pothole. By the time you see the the alligator cracks and the potholes, it’s already past the point when it should have been repaired and it’s going to cost you a lot more to fix it. We should have done that before we created the WVFRA partnership.”

Franke, a former Marion County commissioner, said while MCFD1 is experiencing tremendous growing pains, it takes time to reset the foundations for a stable organization.

If re-elected, he would take a more proactive role in letting district employees and volunteers know that the changes are not being initiated by Henson alone.

“The board has to take a more active role in explaining changes and the value of creating additional partnerships with other fire districts,” Franke said.

One step in the right direction, said Palmer, Franke’s opponent, would be to cut down on the usage of legal services.

“We need leadership that can make decisions without going to attorneys. We have to have open dialogue and interact back and forth,” Palmer said.

The districts legal costs ballooned from $16,500 in 2007-08 to more than $275,000 in 2009-10.

“I feel they’ve overspent. Tualatin Valley Fire and Rescue serves five cities and their legal line time was only $195,000 last year,” Palmer said.

Palmer is one of a handful of employees who either resigned or left the district after Henson was brought on as fire chief.

Palmer feels the district has not lived up to commitments made to taxpayers when they passed two bond levies to seismically upgrade MCFD’s Station 1 and replace equipment deemed unsafe. While the district has bought replacement engines for all of the equipment, two of the new engines remain on reserve while older vehicles are on the front line.

“As one of the people who went out and asked friends and neighbors to pass those bond measures, I don’t feel like the board has lived up to the commitments made,” Palmer said.

Palmer said he bears no ill will to Henson and does not believe that the only solution is Henson’s removal.

“I would base my decisions based forward from the date I it down at the table, but I question the board’s judgement in allowing him to carry a weapon while on duty. I think it places an unnecessary liability on the fire district,” Palmer said. In fall 2009, members of the MCFD and joint WVFRA board granted approval for Henson to carry a firearm on duty, a decision which came to light only after Henson was involved in a rollover accident en route to a commercial fire on New Year’s Eve 2010.

Palmer said his 23 years with the district and business experience as a small business owner and construction superintendent prepare him well for the task of a director on the MCFD fire board.

“I know the area, community members and the neighboring districts and have good relationships with all of them. I can be a good spokesperson for the volunteers and I have close relationship with career firefighters,” Palmer said.

Of the two contested races, Orville Downer is the undisputed veteran, he joined the Brooks Fire District as a volunteer in 1963 and became a member of the board in 1991. Primarily, he wants to see WVFRA through its growth pains.

“I think it’s going to be really good for both districts in the long run and it could be good for a lot of districts,” Downer said.

Downer said the primary duty of the board is to stand behind the chief and his decisions, a task he has no issue with in regards to Henson’s time on the job.

“I’m a strong supporter of the chief even if I didn’t like him, and I do think [Henson] is doing the job well. He was a little too timid at first, and it allowed some of the culture that has grown to prosper, and it’s hard to pull it back in,” Downer said.

Increased legal fees the board has approved in recent years is a result of that culture, Downer said.

“We’ve had as many as three unfair labor practices filed in a day and a few days later there’s more of them,” he said. He said one-on-one and mediated meetings with involved parties seldom bore fruit in the long term.

He has no regrets regarding the decision to allow the chief to carry a concealed weapon.

“I thought he was perfectly justified, and maybe it should have been public, but I’m perfectly comfortable with it and he’s as qualified to do that as he is to be chief,” Downer said.

Downer’s opponent, Andrea “Andi” Batchelor, said that improving communication within the district would be a top priority for her.

“Communication and trust between firefighters and the board is imperative, but it also has to extend into the community,” she said. “The community deserves to witness decisions being made, and while it is not possible to please everyone, I want to be able to refer to data and evidence to guide the decisions we make as a board.”

Batchelor has been regularly attending board meetings for more than two years, but it is her first run for elected office. She wants to see concrete plans made for the future of MCFD’s Station 1. Concerns about possible annexation into the Salem Fire Departments’s coverage area cannot be paralyzing, she added.

“Decisions have to be made carefully, but it is not acceptable to not keep promises to the taxpayers with the only explanation for why nothing has been done being because the decisions are hard to make. Our community and our firefighters deserve a safe building to live and work in and our volunteers need fire engines that are safe to operate,” she said.

Batchelor preferred not to speak directly regarding her assessment of Henson as fire chief, but said, “[If I’m elected,] there will be measurable goals and benchmarks. Consequences for unsatisfactory performance need to be combined with flexibility in anticipation for the unexpected, but not to the extent that the plan has no structure.”

Like Palmer, she said she would assess the situation moving forward.

Training as a school psychologist and a mediation certification from Portland State University prepare her well for the tasks of a fire board director, she said.

“I can move this organization forward effectively, efficiently, and in a manner that improves the community,” Batchelor said.