LANE COUNTY, Ore. – The South Lane County Fire & Rescue received nearly 200 emails, letters and calls ahead of a controversial meeting over disciplinary action for current fire chief John Wooten.
Of the nearly 200 comments, a majority voiced support for disciplinary action or removing the chief from his position.
Wooten, who was placed on administrative leave during an investigation into inflammatory Facebook posts on his profile, was reinstated after a 3-2 vote by the fire board on June 18.
Unsatisfied that no disciplinary action was taken, Board Vice President Jennifer Radcliffe resigned in protest immediately following the vote. Radcliffe cited many of the emails the board received as evidence the community supported disciplinary action.
Those comments, obtained through a records request by KEZI, revealed more than 140 comments sent to the board voicing concern about the posts on Wooten’s Facebook account. Wooten has said his Facebook account was hacked, though the controversial posts were made over the course of two months.
“Seeing as the public has seen no such evidence, and that there appears to be a pattern of posts stretching back weeks, I am very disappointed that the South Lane County Fire and Rescue team has backed this excuse that Wooten was hacked,” wrote Daisy Burge, a Lane County resident.
Others called for further clarification about the fire district’s stance on social media accountability.
“South Lane Fire needs to issue a public statement against racism and violence. I would also like to see a public statement on South Lane Fire Department’s policy about private social media accounts and plans for ensuring anti-discrimination in our community,” wrote Sarah Burlingame, a Creswell resident.
South Lane Firefighters Local 851, the union representing firefighters, was quick to condemn the comments, regardless of their authenticity.
“We want to be clear that irresponsible and incendiary posts DO NOT represent South Lane Firefighters. Our job as Firefighters is to answer the call for help whenever any citizen of this community needs help. We wholeheartedly reject these type of posts and the hatred behind them,” the union wrote on Facebook on June 2.
A smaller number of people came to Wooten’s defense, saying his account was hacked, and even if it wasn’t, Wooten has a right to free speech.
“The Chief’s personal Facebook page was used and not that of the department. He has a 1st Amendment right to free speech,” wrote Pam Duffy, a Cottage Grove resident.
Duffy also said that Wooten has done a good job leading the department.
“This District was totally and absolutely dysfunctional for so many years and Chief Wooten has turned that around and also made the District financially solvent,” Duffy said.
Still, others like Cottage Grove resident Kory Weimer said the good does not outweigh the bad.
“Yes, he has done good for the community. Yes, he has turned around the department. But at what point does merit outweigh how you would commit violence against the very populace you’ve been sworn to protect?” Weimer said.
After the comments surfaced, a small group of people showed their support for Wooten and gathered near the South Lane Fire and Rescue Building in Cottage Grove with signs of support.
The South Lane Fire Board did not respond to a request for comment.