By ERIC A. HOWALD
Of the Keizertimes

The president of the Professional Firefighters Association of Marion County (PFAMC) takes issue with the claim that the months leading up to the fire chief’s New Year’s Eve accident were boon times for Marion County Fire District No. 1.

“During the time that [Fire Chief J. Kevin Henson] claims thing were getting better at the district, they started talking about wanting to announce layoffs,” said Kris Boyer, president of PFAMC. “We’d been bargaining for nine months by then, had been asked to take a 25 percent pay cut and then then threatened with the layoffs. It wasn’t getting better. His wreck was just one more incident in a stressful situation.”

The union represents MCFD1’s 34 professional firefighters who approved a no confidence vote in the wake of a rollover accident that injured Henson and brought to light his carrying of a concealed weapon – approved by board members – while on duty. In response to the incident, and three years of turmoil between the firefighters and the administration, the PFAMC is backing two candidates – Bob Palmer and Andrea Batchelor – challenging Marion County Fire Board members Randy Franke and Orville Downer in the current election. Funding for the challengers is flowing from in-kind donations from the PFAMC’s political action committee and comprise more than 96 percent of Batchelor’s campaign fund and 69 percent of Palmer’s.

Boyer said the PFAMC’s displeasure with the chief stems from confrontations with Henson on the part of both career firefighters and volunteer personnel.

“His management style is the key to all of it,” Boyer said.

In response to a number of unfair employment practices claims, an investigation was launched into what could be done to improve communications and yielded an 11-step process to achieving that goal. The problem, Boyer said, is there has been no follow-up.

“You don’t see a return to something discussed a year ago,” he said. “Board members talk about firefighters being held accountable and no one is holding the chief accountable.”

Henson asked individual members of the MCFD1 Fire Board and joint Willamette Valley Fire and Rescue Authority (WVFRA) for permission to carry a concealed weapon in response to death threats and break-ins at his home and office, but Boyer disavows all knowledge of such incidents.

“[The union] doesn’t believe any of the break-ins or death threats have occurred,” Boyer said. “I don’t have any knowledge of the chief’s life prior to becoming chief of MCFD1, but I don’t believe any of our staff would do such a thing.”

Boyer said the union supports the merging of MCFD1 and the Turner Fire District into WVFRA, but that it was done too hastily.

“We had a contract that spawned few grievances, but we were pushed to do it to make way for WVFRA,” Boyer said. “If it had been done more slowly, or with more long-term planning, it would have been better.”

Negotiating pay cuts and layoffs at the time of the chief’s accident was a result of what the union viewed as putting the cart before the horse.

“The administration hired three new people in 2010 and transferred over emergency funds from an apparatus account and then we were hit with the request for pay cuts, threats of layoffs and demands for a no-cost contract,” Boyer said.

The union’s position is that the chief lied about certain aspects of the rollover wreck. Henson claims he was wearing his seatbelt at the time of the accident. The police report and photos of the scene show the belt locked in an unused position, but it’s not safety issues that are the union’s concern, Boyer said.

“You can’t lie and get away with it and expect to hold employees accountable. [Henson] is not the exception to the rules we have, he’s being held to different rules and it’s funny to hear the board say firefighters are not being held accountable,” Boyer said.

Whether or not the board ultimately decides to take any further action, the union will bring up the issue if firefighters are accused of doing anything in the same vein.

Boyer has trouble visioning a future with the current administration and chief, but thought some ground might be gained if the chief were to admit his “wrongdoings.”

“WVFRA could have been and still may be a great department. But with the current situation, other districts are choosing not to join and staying away because of the turmoil,” he said.