Fired Ore. fire chief files $20M whistleblower lawsuit
Columbia River Fire & Rescue Fire Chief Joel Medina’s lawsuit claims retaliation after reporting misconduct by public employees, officials
By Maxine Bernstein
ST. HELENS, Ore. — Columbia River Fire & Rescue’s chief, ousted last week in a surprise board vote, filed a $20 million whistleblower suit Thursday against the fire district, four board members and union leaders.
The federal civil rights suit alleges the district and its governing board retaliated against Fire Chief Joel Medina for reporting unchecked district credit card purchases, mismanagement of grant-funded jobs and improper classification of administrative staff to obtain higher firefighter retirement benefits. The state police and Columbia County District Attorney’s office are conducting an ongoing criminal investigation into Medina’s findings.
The board received copies of Medina’s lawsuit at a special meeting called to discuss the fire district’s deepening financial troubles, including losing its line of credit.
The board fired Medina after he made “a good faith report in the public interest about misconduct by public employees and public officials,” the lawsuit says.
The suit accuses the board of firing Medina without notice in violation of his contract, due process rights and state public meetings law.
Medina seeks unspecified punitive damages against the four members who voted to add the resolution to fire him to their Aug. 8 meeting and the three new members who voted to fire him, Richard Fletcher, Ryan Welby and Austin Zimbrick. All three were elected in May.
The board added the resolution at the start of its monthly meeting. It wasn’t on the agenda posted for the public. The resolution cited two votes of no confidence in Medina this year by the local firefighters union, which is in arbitration with the St. Helens-based district over a disputed contract.
Board president Kelly Niles abstained from the vote to fire Medina, though he agreed with the three new members to add the resolution to the agenda. One lone board member Gary Hudson voted against firing Medina and the next day resigned from the board. The board then immediately appointed an interim chief, who resigned three days later, after having resisted union pressure to fire Medina’s colleagues, Finance Division Chief Jimmy Sanchez and Deputy Chief Eric Smythe.
Medina’s suit also alleges that the three board members who voted to fire him as well as a local resident and community activist, Ronda Melton, defamed him on social media, including disparaging him because of his race.
“Defendants have published statements on Local #3215′s Facebook site accusing Plaintiff of gross misconduct, fraud, dishonesty, and financial misconduct in his employment with CRFR,” the suit states. “Defendants have also used other social media sites including, but not limited to Twitter, accusing Plaintiff of gross misconduct, fraud, dishonesty, and financial misconduct.”
Some businesses in the town of about 14,360 people have gone “so far as to deny public accommodations to Chief Medina and Division Chief (Jimmy) Sanchez and their families,” including refusing to seat them in a restaurant when only one table was occupied,” according to the suit.
A previous board hired Medina from Florida to run the fire department, which has a current roster of 35 firefighters and a $13 million budget. Medina started in late December 2020 and last year hired Sanchez, a colleague from Florida, to oversee the finances after the longtime civilian finance manager left.
“Chief Medina and Division Chief Sanchez believe that they are being victimized by persons that are trying to cover-up their own malfeasance and wrongdoing,” the suit contends. “In doing so, they are defaming them in an effort to drive them from their employment, ruin their credibility and drive them from the District and the area.”
The suit seeks economic damages, damages for emotional distress and reinstatement with back pay.
Medina’s lawsuit follows a suit filed in April by three former district employees against Medina alleging sexual harassment. Medina, who eliminated their jobs, has denied the allegations.
At Thursday night’s meeting, the district’s lawyer, Akin Blitz, informed board members that U.S. Bank has “effectively canceled” the agency’s line of credit designed to keep the district afloat until November, when the district receives it property taxes.
“This is a huge problem,” Blitz said.
“Without significant revenues, you’re going to run out of money,” the district-hired auditor Robert G. Moody Jr. said moments later.
The bank acted when district administrators were unable to certify that the district hadn’t undergone any material change in its finances or faced any legal liabilities in the past year - including a “suit, proceeding or investigation at law,” that could have an “adverse effect on the ability of the district” to pay back the loan, the district’s bond counsel Gülgün Ugur wrote to Sanchez Thursday.
“I am sorry to be the bearer of bad news,” Ugur’s letter said.
The disputed union contract, now before a state arbitrator, could add to the financial turmoil.
Past board members signed the contract but became aware only later that a wage table included as an appendix had rolled in a 10% premium pay into the base salary of firefighter paramedics, aside from the 2% increase and $7,500 stipend that the district intended for them.
At the start of the fiscal year, the district’s available cash totaled $3.1 million. The district had $1.3 million left as of Wednesday, according to the auditor.
District expenses are expected to hit $4.35 million through the end of October, Moody said. The district will face a projected $1.6 million deficit at the end of the fiscal year 2023-24 because revenue isn’t keeping up with personnel and operating costs, he said.
Sanchez, who remains in his job as the fire district’s division finance chief, said he and Medina have been raising the alarm about the dire financial picture for more than a year, but union leaders scoffed at them.
“It’s what we’ve been saying since July of last year: the district has no money,” he told the new board. “There’s a deficit, and we’ve been borrowing for a long time.”
At the end of the night, four board members voted to direct Sanchez to reach out to the city of St. Helens to find out if it would provide a “secured loan” to the district to allow it to operate until property tax revenue becomes available in November.
If St. Helens agrees, it “buys you some time,” Moody told the board.