Former chief, fire district reach agreement

Mike Balzer served as fire chief from 2012 to October 2015.

The legal dispute between former Fire Chief Mike Balzer and the Cannon Beach Rural Fire Protection District is over.

U.S. Magistrate Judge Paul Papak in Portland dismissed Balzer’s civil rights lawsuit against the fire district on Wednesday, Jan. 4. Balzer will receive a one-time lump sum of $55,000. In return, he agrees that he will not work for the district or ask for further compensation.

“It’s fair to say the parties came to an agreement,” Judy Snyder, the attorney representing Balzer, said Monday. “I would say that Mr. Balzer is pleased with the resolution.”

Balzer was fired in October 2015 in what the fire district’s board described as a “personnel matter.”

Records showed that Balzer, who earned more than $100,000 in annual salary and compensation, was faulted for “poor leadership” in a performance evaluation.

Balzer challenged the fire district and individual board members in a lawsuit that claimed his federal due process and free association rights were violated. In a court filing, Balzer argued that the fire district made false statements “for the sole purpose of embarrassing and humiliating” him and fired him without a hearing.

Balzer, who served as fire chief from January 2012 until he was fired, claimed the fire district’s board retaliated against him because of critical comments made by his wife, Colleen, on social media. According to the lawsuit, directors Sharon Clyde, Linda Beck-Sweeney and Garry Smith “chastised” Balzer for “allowing his spouse to express her criticism of board members on social media websites and in her speech.”

Balzer alleged that the district and board violated his free association rights, in that Balzer’s “intimate association with his wife” is entitled to protection under the First Amendment.

Balzer stated in his complaint that the board’s actions led to damages to his reputation and standing in the community. He sought compensation of almost $678,000 and reinstatement of his duties and benefits.

The three directors named in the lawsuit prevailed in a special recall election in April 2016. After interim Chiefs Jim Stearns and Frank Swedenborg, Matt Benedict was hired and has served as the fire chief since June.

Both parties were able to get the case resolved following U.S. District Court depositions in October.

The motion to dismiss the case was submitted by Ronald Downs, representing the fire district and board of directors.

Charges in the case that the directors had violated Balzer’s due process and free association rights were not addressed in the court ruling. The decision also did not address claims that the district had muzzled comments of Balzer’s wife on Facebook.

Among the terms of the settlement, Balzer will not be returning to the fire district as an employee.

“That ship has sailed,” Snyder said. “I would say that Mr. Balzer is pleased with the resolution. He is pleased that he engaged in this process and that it resulted in a satisfactory outcome for him.”

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