Following an executive session Thursday that lasted more than two hours, the East County Fire and Rescue Commission voted to terminate the contract of the district’s fire chief.
With a 3-0 vote, during a special meeting on Jan. 8, Commissioners Martha Martin, Mike Berg and Thomas Gianatasio fired Scott Koehler “without cause,” effective immediately.
Deputy Chief Dean Thornberry was appointed acting fire chief. He has worked for the district since 2003, when he was hired as a battalion chief.
Chairwoman Martin, a member of the board since May 2012, said the action against Koehler is justified.
“Based on my experience of working with the chief and recent changes in the board, I do not believe that this board can work effectively with the chief,” she said. “And I believe it is in the best interest of East County Fire and Rescue and its citizens that we go in a new direction with new leadership.”
Added Berg: “I agree with the decision and I think this will be a move in the right direction for all of the people of East County Fire and Rescue.”
Koehler, a Washougal resident, was not present.
After the meeting, both Berg and Martin declined to comment further about the reasons behind the firing, citing advice from the district’s attorney, Brian Snure, who was in attendance.
“It’s a tough process,” said Berg, a commissioner since 2010, when contacted by phone Sunday. “We are just under legal advice that we can’t say anything. We don’t know what is going to happen next. We understand the process, we just don’t know how it is going to turn out.”
Koehler’s contract stipulates that if terminated, he would receive compensation that includes six month’s severance pay, six months of retirement plan premium payments and long-term disability insurance coverage, and six months of insurance coverage.
Koehler’s annual salary was approximately $102,000.
Martin said work is currently being done to tabulate the total costs and savings that the district will incur as a result of Koehler’s termination. The data is expected to be ready for the commission’s next meeting on Jan. 20.
During the past few months, the ECFR organization has undergone several unexpected leadership changes.
On Oct. 6, 30-year Commissioner Gary Larson resigned due to what he described as “health reasons.” Gianatasio was sworn in Dec. 2 as his successor.
This was followed by the resignation of 13-year commissioner George F. “Jack” Hoober on Dec. 17.
Victor Rasmussen, a 32-year commissioner, said yesterday he turned in his resignation to the district on Jan. 7, following a contentious executive (non-public) session on Jan. 6. He declined to elaborate on the details.
“After that, I told them I was done, I didn’t want any part of it anymore,” he said.
Martin and Berg both said that they have not seen Rasmussen’s official letter of resignation.
Rasmussen explained that he does not support the board’s action to fire Koehler, and he was not aware that the Jan. 8 special meeting was scheduled until after-the-fact.
“Basically, I want to make it clear to everybody I was not involved in Scott’s firing,” he said. “I think he has done some great things for the district. His record stands for itself.”
Rasmussen added that he was not surprised Martin, Berg and Gianatasio took the action they did.
“Nothing would surprise me with these people,” he said. “How quick it went is what surprised me.”
Koehler, 55, had been the ECFR fire chief since August 2002. He previously worked as a chief in Stanwood, Wash., Camano Island, Wash., and for the Nestucca Rural Fire District in Cloverdale, Ore.
ECFR’s six full-time and five part-time paid firefighters, along with approximately 50 volunteers, provide fire protection and emergency medical service response to the 10,000 residents who live within the 60 square miles of unincorporated areas that are north of and east of the cities of Camas and Washougal.
The district responded to 826 calls in 2013, 917 in 2012 and 888 in 2011.
The Jan. 20 ECFR commission meeting will begin at 7 p.m., at Station 91, 600 N.E. 267th Ave.