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Fire board demurs on Web charges

After meeting with city officials, rural panel decides not to push for an investigation into charges against Forest Grove fire chief
by: Courtesy Photo, Dave Nemeyer -  
Fire Inspector

Members of the Forest Grove rural fire board announced Monday that they would not press the city to start a formal investigation of the allegations of misconduct being circulated by a Web site operated by a former Forest Grove firefighter.

Rural board president Lyle Spiesschaert said that after meeting with Forest Grove City Manager Michael Sykes, he and rural board vice-president Jim Love felt that the city had taken appropriate action to resolve tensions in the firehouse, and that the rural board and the city were 'on the same page.'

'The test for us was whether we could be convinced if they were truly on top of it and taking it seriously,' Spiesschaert said. 'We were both convinced of that, but we're going to monitor it on an ongoing basis.'

Also on Monday, the union representing paid firefighter's released a statement about its disappointment in the way that the Web site controversy had distracted efforts to win a funding levy in May and made it seem that the fire house was in turmoil.

'We felt like this was a poor time for this to be coming out,' Ted Penge, union shop steward, said.

Penge said that the letter was drafted together by all 15 union firefighters during a recent meeting.

'I think the sentiment was: those guys don't work here anymore,' said David Nemeyer, Forest Grove fire inspector. 'They're not necessarily the voice for all of us.'

A flurry of activity has beset the fire department since former firefighter and union shop steward Jim Brown posted a Web site, www.thetruthaboutforestgrovefire.com, in which he and other former firefighters alleged Forest Grove Fire Chief Robert Mills was an unfit manager who had overseen blunders in the past.

Mills has refuted all but a few of the claims on the Web site and has acknowledged some past mistakes, such as threatening to terminate fire department employees if they spoke to the press.

But Penge said that Brown's former role as a shop steward has created confusion about the union's role.

'It's been made into a union issue and the union's not involved,' Penge said. 'It's an issue between Mr. Brown and the city.'

Spiesschaert said that the public nature of the Web site made it necessary for his board to look into the issue.

'The Web site is privately maintained but it's in the public domain so everybody sees it,' Spiesschaert said.

The arrest and resignation of fire lieutenant Gary Clay Davis for falsifying fire inspection reports in November has also infused the controversy with a great deal of emotional weight and raised basic organizational issues, Spiesschaert said.

'That's a troubling event, but what's more troubling is what could lead up to that, because these are good people,' Spiesschaert said. 'I'm really concerned if employees feel pressured to complete tasks that they don't have time to do.'

On his Web site and in an interview with the News-Times, Brown said that fire inspections were a second thought for most firefighters lost in the shuffle of the stress and bluster of their primary duty: putting out fires.

Sykes said city officials are taking the matter seriously.

'Sometimes you don't like criticism and sometimes you can learn from what people are saying,' Sykes said.