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Web site targets Forest Grove fire chief

by: , Fire Chief Robert Mills

A Web site published by a former Forest Grove firefighter levied a flurry of allegations at his old boss and spurred a terse rebuttal from city hall last week.

The Web site went live Thursday and offered up a broad range of complaints about the management style of Fire Chief Robert Mills and the way city officials have handled internal firehouse strife.

The author of the Web site, Jim Brown, left the fire department in 2005 after 10 years and now resides in Vermont. He told the News-Times Monday that he began working on the Web site months ago after he failed to interest reporters in Washington County in his story.

'I've thought long and hard about my motivation in this,' he said. 'I'm 3,000 miles away - why should I care? The fact is I gave my word to a very dear group of people that are family to me.

'This is about protecting the line firefighters and exposing management,' he continued. 'This is about taking care of them, regardless of how people want to question my motives.'

Mills said Monday that he hadn't read the Web site since its launch last week.

'That's not going to be my daily thing that I'm going to go in and check that Web site. It's clear that they're after my job and I don't think those people will be happy until I'm gone,' Mills said.

Brown's Web site, which he says he intends to update periodically, details the issues that Brown said he raised with Forest Grove City Manager Michael Sykes in May 2006 about deficient training in the department and a hostile workplace which had lowered morale among firefighters.

Sykes responded to the Web site Friday with a press release acknowledging that Brown had brought his concerns to the city and that an internal investigation for policy violations found that some were valid and others were unfounded.

But Sykes questioned the timing of the Web site's publication, saying that it could undermine efforts to convince voters to vote for a public safety funding levy set for a vote May 15.

'The city is concerned that Mr. Brown's actions may result in the loss of resources used to protect and serve our community and encourages citizens to question Mr. Brown's motivation,' Sykes wrote.

Brown said that Syke's criticism didn't surprise him.

'He's got one of two choices: he can admit that he knew about the problems and Mills can step down or they can attack me personally and say that I'm bitter,' Brown said.

Sykes was on vacation Monday and was not available for comment.

Lyle Spiesschaert, chairman of the Forest Grove Rural Fire District board, said his group would discuss the possibility of an investigation into the complaints issued by Brown's Web site at its April 3 meeting.

'I don't want to imply that the rural board might go out on their own in doing this, but we might ask the city to do something,' Spiesschaert said.

The rural fire board sets policy for the 80-mile rural fire district around the city limits. Mills is an employee of the city and a member of the rural fire board, but the board co-owns the buildings and equipment that the fire department uses.

'I don't want to fuel something that shouldn't be fueled, and I'm careful about that, but we will discuss it,' Spiesschaert said. 'If our board finds that it's being handled adequately, then that'll take care of it for me.'

Mills conceded that morale is low at the department, but said the cause was the failure in November to pass the city's funding levy.

He also admitted that, as detailed on Brown's Web site, he told his staff in March that if they spoke with the media he would fire them on the spot, but said he quickly recanted the order after being chided by Rob DuValle, Forest Grove's human resources director.

'I did that one time and it was a big mistake and I keep (the e-mail) right here in a top drawer so that it can remind me not to say stupid things,' Mills said.

But Mills said there was no truth to another one of Brown's allegations: that fire inspectors routinely did 'drive-by' inspections of apartment buildings.

'We can never go through people's apartments because that's their homes,' Mills explained. But, he added, firefighters 'were told to do walkthroughs (of the buildings' common areas) - not drive-bys.'

Brown's Web site also features of photo of Gary Clay Davis, a 20-year veteran lieutenant who resigned his post in November after admitting to Forest Grove Police that he falsified fire inspection reports.

Brown said that the real story behind Davis' ouster has yet to be published on his Web site because Davis is still negotiating a plea agreement with Washington County prosecutors.

'I was shocked when Clay was fired over inspections,' Brown said, referring to what he deemed uneven prosecution of fire inspection standards at the station.

Forest Grove Police Chief Glenn VanBlarcom said Monday that his department was never asked to look into other fire inspections and got involved only because of the allegation that Davis falsified documents.

But VanBlarcom said he'd expect the firefighter's union to file a formal grievance if the felt Davis was being punished out for behavior that was common in the department.

'Their (union) has been on board with this thing from the beginning, and if everyone was doing this slipshod work and Clay was singled out - wouldn't the union be down Human Resource's throat?' VanBlarcom said.

Mills also strongly refuted an assertion that he installed a sexually-inappropriate screen saver on the computer of a female fire department secretary.

'I think that's pretty discriminating against me and I'd like people to know that I didn't do that,' Mills said.

Mills said the allegation had been embarrassing for him and his family.

'If people ask me about it I'll just politely tell them that I didn't do it. If that's their perception, that I did it, sometimes that's more powerful than the truth,' Mills said.

When asked if he would ask Brown to remove that claim, Mills said he didn't plan to.

'I've got a levy to try to pass,' he said. 'This is a little bit of a distraction, but they can do what they want to do.'