Morrow County fire district posted a sign critical of two county commissioners amidst a recall election, but the fire chief says the sign isn’t meant to be political.
A picture provided to OPB on Nov. 10 shows a sign taped onto the side of a Boardman Fire District ambulance. In big block letters, it reads, “COMM’R DOHERTY LINDSAY REFUSE TO LET US USE OUR AMBULANCES.” As of Monday afternoon, Boardman Fire Chief Mike Hughes said the sign was still up.
The sign is an indication of a bitter political fight playing out in Morrow County over how the current council has decided on a variety of issues.
Commissioners Jim Doherty and Melissa Lindsay are the subjects of a Nov. 29 recall election where pro-recall supporters have cited their ongoing conflict with Boardman Fire as one of the reasons to remove the pair.
The sign triggered a rebuke from Doherty.
“Deplorable doesn’t begin to describe it, frankly,” he told OPB.
Lindsay was also unsparing.
“It’s really disappointing that the fire district has chosen to misappropriate funds/resources to pursue a personal vendetta,” she wrote in a text message, later adding that it was also “factually inaccurate.”
The conflict revolves around Boardman Fire’s attempts to expand into ambulance services. The Morrow County Health District provides ambulance services to Boardman, but Hughes said call times can take too long when other health district ambulances are already in use. He said Boardman Fire has spent more than a year and a half trying to secure local and state permission to add itself to the city’s ambulance service area.
In order to get permission from the Oregon Health Authority, Hughes said he needed a letter from the Morrow County Board of Commissioners. But Lindsay and Doherty have yet to sign on.
“They’ve come up with every single solitary excuse they can,” Hughes said.
Doherty said Boardman Fire’s frustrations are misdirected. The board of commissioners needed to receive a recommendation from an emergency medical services advisory committee, he said, before it could vote to write a letter to OHA. Doherty said Boardman Fire had yet to secure that recommendation.
Lindsay and Doherty have also faced criticism for firing a county administrator, among other issues. Both commissioners have described the efforts as personal vendettas rather than legitimate issues with their governance.
Regardless of the outcome of the recall election, Morrow County will swear in two new commissioners in January since Lindsay lost her re-election bid in May and Commissioner Don Russell is retiring. Doherty expected the new commissioners would find themselves in the same position on the ambulance service area.
“If I carry forward onto the new board — or when I carry forward, frankly — we’re still going to be facing the same conundrum,” he said.
Hughes said the county has urged Boardman Fire to work with the health district to reach a solution, but it hasn’t yielded results. In July, the East Oregonian reported that the health district and Boardman Fire took shots at each other on Facebook. Both sides accused the other of being uncooperative.
The district felt that drawing public attention to the issue was the next step.
“The county set up mediation. Nothing’s worked,” Hughes said. “And so finally, we said, ‘Well, we’re done.’ And that’s why we posted the sign. They won’t give us a letter. We don’t have any other choice than let the public know that we’re not satisfied with what’s going on.”
The state has laws that prohibit public agencies from mixing their services with politics. The owners of public property cannot use it for political activities unless they provide opponents equal time to use it, according to a guide published by the Oregon Secretary of State’s Office. Public employees are also barred from posting political material during work hours.
Ann Spicer, the chief petitioner of the Doherty recall, listed the ambulance issue as one of the reasons behind the recall and several members of the Boardman Fire District Board of Directors signed the petition. But Hughes said the sign was not meant to coincide with the recall campaign or be viewed as a political statement, even as it appeared just a few days after a recall date was set.
“I wanted to do this six months ago, eight months ago,” he said. “We held off because we were trying to follow the process the county lined out for us. It’s just a factual, neutral statement and that’s all there is to that.”
Whether the sign violates state law would be determined by the Oregon Secretary of State’s Office, in some circumstances.
Secretary of state spokesman Ben Morris said using public property for political purposes is not enforced by his office and instead the state relies on self-regulation. But public employees engaging in political activity on the clock would be investigated by the agency if it received a complaint or if the state agency decided to look into it itself.