CANNON BEACH — The former Cannon Beach fire chief is seeking more money and relief from retaliation and harassment in his lawsuit against the Cannon Beach Rural Fire Protection District.
An amended complaint ups the damages Mike Balzer seeks to more than $677,000 and asks for the reinstatement of his employment benefits.
Balzer also asks the court for relief from “further retaliation or harassment” after his firing in October.
Balzer was fire chief from January 2012 until Oct. 12, when the fire district’s board voted 4-1 for his discharge. Balzer’s original contract term ran through June 2017.
In the amended complaint filed in Clatsop County Circuit Court last week, Balzer said the board retaliated against him because of critical comments made by his wife, Colleen, on social media. The firing was motivated by “personal animus,” the amended complaint states, and “did not constitute the good faith sufficient cause under the employment agreement.”
According to the amended complaint, Balzer was “unwilling and unable to restrict his wife from speaking her mind, despite the threat that he could be discharged if she continued to express her opinions.”
The complaint states it is against public policy for a public body like the fire district board to fire an employee “for his inability to restrain his spouse’s speech, particularly when the expressions are criticisms of public officials.”
Board directors described the firing as “strictly business, not personal.”
Documents provided by the fire district after an open records request include a 2014-15 evaluation of Balzer’s performance. Balzer, who earned more than $100,000 in annual salary and compensation as chief, was said to demonstrate “poor leadership,” “poor communication” and “lied” to the board when he agreed to leave the chief’s truck on district property and failed to do so, directors said.
“This continues to seriously erode the trust the board has for the chief,” they wrote.
In addition, remarks by Balzer’s wife on social media exhibited “poor judgment” by Balzer “in allowing his spouse to continue to interact inappropriately online via social media criticizing board members and staff,” directors wrote in their evaluation.
In four out of five categories — accuracy, job knowledge, productivity and timeliness — Balzer’s work “needed improvement,” according to the directors.
In the fifth category, thoroughness, Balzer received a “satisfactory” rating.
Balzer, who signed off on the evaluation in March, told the board at the time: “After reviewing the contents of this review, I believe it’s best to not comment on how things were said and written.”
A six-month review was to be held in November. “Failure to achieve the six-month goals may result in termination,” directors wrote.
Balzer was terminated three weeks prior to the six-month review period.
Since that time, many Cannon Beach residents have defended the former chief and sought his reinstatement. Resident Susan Neuwirth launched a petition to remove three of the board’s five directors, President Sharon Clyde, Garry Smith and Linda Beck-Sweeney, in a recall election.
Neuwirth accused the board of lacking transparency and being “unprofessionally run.”
Recall proponents need 125 signatures to force a vote by April 6, a number determined by taking 15 percent of the votes the district cast in the last election.
As of Friday, Neuwirth said she had the required number but was seeking at least 150 additional names in the event some signatures are dismissed on technicalities.
“We’re well within the time period,” Neuwirth said. “We’re just gleaning people who were out of town and were missed. People are seeking me out.”
If an insufficient number of signatures are submitted, it proceeds no further, Clatsop County Clerk Valerie Crafard said. “If a sufficient number of signatures are submitted, I inform the public officer that they may submit their resignation or a statement of justification,” she said. “If the public officer does not resign within five days, the election must be held no later than the 35th day after the last day for the public officer to resign.”
If the three commissioners named in the recall petition choose to fight the ouster, a special election would be held at a cost of about $6,000 to the taxpayers, Neuwirth said.
“If they step down, there’s no cost,” she said. “There’s that to factor in. Do they want to cost the district more money?”