"I don't want to know how we got into this - I just want to know how to get out. What's the process for opting out of the fire district?"
Mike Montoya of rural Joseph was voicing frustration at directors of Wallowa Lake Rural Fire Protection District.
He wasn't the only one. For the first time in years, it was standing room only at the lake fire hall Friday, March 5.
That was after residents initially had trouble even entering the locked building and board members demonstrated no knowledge of how to unlock the door. When residents knocked on the big bay doors because the side door was locked, board president Chuck Havens came out, opened the side door from the inside and propped it open.
Apparently, no one knew how to unlock it.
The door to the meeting room also was locked - it was for the last board meeting, too - and had to be opened from the inside for each arriving resident who knocked.
Once it was "public comment" time on the agenda, board members sustained criticism for having no firefighters, instructing their new lawyer, J. Kenneth Jones of Eugene, to check into suing Joseph Fire Chief Tom Clevenger and hiring Jones to begin with to get better terms with neighboring Joseph in the district's fire-protection contract.
"Can you guys be voted out?" Montoya asked board members Chuck Havens of Clarkston, Wash., and Dale Mammen and Greg Blackman of La Grande. "We're paying taxes and getting nothing for it."
Director Bill Bushlen was out of town. Angie Rubin, who held the fifth board seat, had resigned her board post in January, citing the hostile environment of board meetings. The board has not discussed replacing her.
Montoya was told that there's no getting out because his property is within the borders established when the district was formed in 2002.
But the question of whether the board members can be removed was not answered.
In fact, they can, but it would take a recall election or a resignation en masse. To place a recall on the ballot would take a petition with signatures of 15 registered voters living in the district, according to County Clerk Dana Roberts.
"The litigation that's proposed is a huge concern for me," Doug Buska, co-owner of Wallowa Lake Resort and the last remaining district firefighter, who resigned in January, told the board. "It doesn't build a good relationship with Joseph."
Buska continues to be a Joseph firefighter.
Cynthia Hilden, another resident, challenged hiring "the dude from Eugene" and said she felt that antagonism between the district and Joseph didn't support "the public good."
Also at the meeting, Matt Howard, assistant unit forester of the Oregon Department of Forestry, arranged March 18 as the date to recall a brush truck lent to the district. He said the recall was necessary because the district had no firefighters who would use the vehicle.
Mammen assured the residents that the district's "No. 1 priority" was to negotiate "an acceptable contract with the city of Joseph." But he also said "things started to deteriorate when Tom Clevenger came aboard."
Named fire chief last year, Clevenger, a career firefighter and officer who retired to Joseph as a volunteer, and Mammen had a shouting match during a November 2009 meeting. Board minutes indicate that Mammen told Clevenger that he had "zero credibility."
An Enterprise firefighter in attendance supported Clevenger.
"I have worked alongside Tom on many fires," Todd Evans said. "Some fire departments are little fiefdoms, but I've never seen Tom work in other than a professional manner."
Evans asked why the board was questioning Joseph.
"I don't understand the antagonism," he said. "Firefighters - we all work together. This doesn't build a good relationship."
After about a half-hour of complaints and questions at the meeting, Mammen dismissed them, saying, "I have heard enough." After another half-hour of the discussion, Havens thanked the residents for their ideas and said, "I agree with you a thousand percent."
Mammen indicated the board wanted to negotiate directly with the Joseph City Council as an equal, bypassing Clevenger.
Buska said after the meeting that residents "weren't very happy that there were no answers. But we are trying to be patient."
He said many residents told him they would attend the next board meeting April 2 to see if the board answers their questions.