KFD audit sparks change

A cultural audit of the Keizer Fire District determined there to be a lack of leadership from the top, and other issues leading to a negative, and even toxic culture in the station. (Photo Illustration by LOGAN TURBES of Keizertimes)

On Sept. 14, Jeff Cowan retired as Fire Chief at the Keizer Fire District. In a guest column published in the Sept. 30 issue of the Keizertimes, Cowan referred to his decision to retire five years early as “timely.” 

However, according to reports and documents obtained by the Keizertimes through public records requests, a cultural assessment determined the KFD to have a lack of leadership that resulted in a negative — and even toxic — culture.

The assessment, conducted by psychologist Patricia Sikora of Sikora Associates, LLC and dated May 2022, interviewed every member of the KFD, including the board, over six days. In conclusion, Sikora recommended significant changes in leadership. The assessment states that the current behavior is too ingrained “in individuals who do not appear to be willing or, perhaps, able to change. 

A lack of leadership was found, starting at the top with Cowan. The assessment shows a pattern of disengagement from Cowan in his role. 

“The Chief is often described as an absent leader,” Sikora wrote in the assessment. “… this appears to be a pervasive characteristic of his leadership.” 

Cowan’s physical absence directly affected his knowledge and understanding of the issues at hand, and the employees took note, as Sikora said Cowan’s schedule was one of the first things mentioned by employees. 

And even when at the station, Cowan still had a reputation for being absent.

Sikora’s report said that Cowan often delayed or delegated decisions, and personnel have observed him actively ignoring and avoiding problems in an effort to not be held accountable. In turn, this habit has led to issues in-house.

“Chief’s patterns seem to have spilled over to create a culture of blame in the District,” Sikora wrote.

Shift personnel found Cowan to be indifferent to improvement. A particular issue that was brought up was Cowan’s resistance to the desire for a scheduling change. They wanted to move from the current 24/48 to a 48/96 schedule to have a longer recovery period, as 48-hour shifts are becoming the norm anyway, according to the report. 

Many were upset that there wasn’t even a trial period for the new scheduling. In fact, Cowan didn’t even make the decision, instead passing it off to the board, “turfing” it.

Labeled a “politician” by many according to the report, Cowan’s efforts to manage the image of the KFD was often seen as “self-serving, not District-serving.”

Sikora laid some of the blame for Cowan’s lack of leadership at the feet of the board. Cowan was known to control the message, and Sikora found that the board perpetuated his actions.

Cowan had a history of perfect reviews from the board, however the board only received feedback on Cowan from Cowan. 

“Given this careful impression management, it is not surprising that employees believe the board is entirely disconnected from the reality of day-to-day operations and life in the stations,” Sikora said.

Issues personnel had didn’t stop at Cowan and the board. 

The relationships between battalion chiefs appear to be rocky, described as not playing nice together. 

“Employees describe animosity, hostility, and active undermining in these pivotal roles,” Sikora said. 

Each BC has their own way of running a shift, leading to inconsistencies from day-to-day, and forces employees to sometimes have to unlearn a habit they picked up on a previous shift to avoid reprimand, adding unnecessary stress to an already stressful occupation.

Personnel had other issues with the KFD aside from leadership, though much of it stems from the problems there, according to Sikora. 

They feel there is a lack of training, mostly how “the nature and quality of the training as it applies to the day-to-day requirements of being a firefighter/paramedic.”

Issues with trust and accountability, recognition, limited room for upward movement, a me versus we attitude, a self-image stuck in the past and the idea that KFD is a “stepping stone district” were all addressed in Sikora’s report.

In the time between the assessment and Cowan’s September retirement, documents and correspondence show that his relationship with the board soured. 

Copies of the report were sent to Cowan, union president Christina Wilson and KFD board member Greg Ego on May 17, and upon receiving it, Wilson returned a vote of no confidence signed by 23 union members. 

The next day, board member Chet Patterson met with Cowan, gave him a copy of the vote of no confidence, and suggested he go home for the week to prepare a response.

On May 23, Cowan met with Ego and board member Joe Van Meter. The meeting did not go well, and the board called an executive session, and contacted their attorney.

Wilson sent an email to the personnel committee later that day, stating her displeasure with the way the situation had been handled so far.

“I am still not happy that he has been able to continue working at the station,” Wilson wrote. “His unusual behavior continues, including having his entire desktop downloaded onto an external hard drive right after talking to Chet the other day. It is unsettling considering the magnitude of the information in that report, that he is not on administrative leave.”

The board and Cowan agreed to a cooling off period on May 24, and Cowan agreed to stay away until an additional report on operations, the Matrix Report, was received. 

According to a memo Cowan sent the board on June 2, he was at the Willamette Valley Communications Center when he was called into the office of Salem Fire Chief Mike Niblock. Cowan said Niblock told him they had called the KFD station and were told he was under investigation, on administrative leave and not allowed at the station. As a result, Cowan said he was escorted out of the building “in front of my peers and treated as a criminal.” 

In his memo, Cowan expressed concern that his reputation was being tarnished.

The board determined the comments did not come from a member or senior staff, and the next day Patterson had Butler inform Niblock they were baseless rumors.

The board met with Cowan on June 8 to discuss his planned response to the Sikora report. During this meeting, Cowan told the board that when his cooling off period was over and he returned, he planned to have an investigation done on Operation Chief Brian Butler, and terminate Butler’s employment.

Things came to a head between Cowan, the union and division chiefs on June 14. There was a plan for Cowan to meet with each group separately, but the union objected, feeling Cowan was attempting to “divide and conquer.” Cowan refused, and the meetings were delayed until Ego was able to convince the union to meet separately. 

In his meeting with the division chiefs, Cowan laid the blame on others. He said the issues with training were the fault of Training Chief Hector Blanco, and made similar claims towards Butler. Civility was lost, prompting Patterson to stop the meeting. Patterson, Ego and Cowan then decided to cancel the meeting with the union.

The Matrix report was received on June 30, and Cowan remained away from the station.

On Sept. 14, the board and Cowan signed the separation agreement, paying Cowan a lump sum of $261,212, equal to 19-months of his regular salary, as well as six months of health benefits.

Cowan was the only member of leadership to leave KFD following the audits. Blanco and Butler remain, and Maintenance Chief Ryan Russell was named interim Fire Chief on Sept. 20.