TVF&R chief's letter to petition signers draws fire from lobbyist, state lawmaker

A letter sent from Tualatin Valley Fire & Rescue Fire Chief Michael Duyck to residents who signed a petition asking for a vote in TVF&R's existing district on whether to allow Newberg and the Newberg Rural Fire Protection District to join TVF&R. (Image of letter courtesy Matt Evans).

Matt Evans, a conservative lobbyist and blogger, criticized Tualatin Valley Fire & Rescue (TVF&R) after its chief sent a letter to voters who signed petitions.

"You want to send a message to government agencies: 'Don't involve yourself in people's constitutional rights,'" Evans told KATU.

A state lawmaker called the letter "borderline criminal."

The petitions triggered an unprecedented upcoming special election impacting the spending of your tax dollars.

The chief said his response to the petitions was legal and meant to help voters.

Tualatin Valley Fire & Rescue is the largest fire district in Oregon. It serves nearly a half-million people in Washington, Multnomah and Clackamas counties.

This march, voters in TVF&R's existing territory get to make a big decision, whether to allow Newberg and the Newberg Rural Fire Protection District to join their district.

In 2016, the city and its surrounding area dealt with severe strains on services, according to former Newberg Fire Chief Les Hallman.

"For the fire and EMS departments specifically, they had not hired any additional staffing since 2006," said Hallman, "and in a ten-year period between 2006 and 2016, we'd seen a 40 percent increase in our call volume."

Hallman, who started with the Newberg Fire Department in 2009, is now assistant chief for Tualatin Valley Fire & Rescue.

But his claims are backed up by the city, which in July of 2016 entered into a two-year contract for fire and EMS services with TVF&R.

City authorities say among the improvements the deal doubled the number of firefighters cross-trained as paramedics.

"It would've cost the taxpayers there much more for the city of Newberg on its own to try to deliver that same level of service," said Hallman.

Last November, voters in both the city and the nearby rural fire protection district chose to permanently join TVF&R.

"Almost 70 percent in the city and 63 percent in the rural fire protection district said this was the right thing to do," Hallman said, citing election results.

At that point, TVF&R Fire Chief Michael Duyck said it looked like a done deal.

"Nothing we're doing right now is new," he explained, noting that TVF&R has annexed over a dozen agencies in over 40 years.

But in December, a lawyer named Eric Winters said not so fast, showing up at a Washington County Board of Commissioners meeting with two petitions that triggered a special election.

"We'd never had a petition filed before where someone was asking us to put it to a much larger vote," Duyck said.

The law required only 100 signatures on a single petition to trigger the March 13 election. Winters' petitions had about 200 signatures each. They allowed voters in the existing district to decide whether the deals to annex Newberg and the Newberg Rural Fire Protection District would go forward.

At first, TVF&R tried to fight it but the commission said the agency must follow the law.

After being asked why his agency didn't just want to have residents vote on whether Newberg is annexed, Duyck said, "Well, and we are. ... One, it's expensive to put something like that on the ballot in a special election. And two, because of the requirements of the secretary of state to fulfill the requirements in annexation, we have to get this all wrapped up before March 31st or the future of public safety within those communities is somewhat uncertain."

Duyck said the election will cost TVF&R more than $300,000.

With time running out before ballots are cast, he sent a letter to residents who signed the petition on Dec. 28.

It said in part, "We would like to have the opportunity to address your concerns and any questions you may have."

And it claimed the annexations "would not increase taxes paid by existing TVF&R patrons."

Matt Evans, a conservative lobbyist and writer for the Oregon Catalyst political blog, said a couple of people who received the chief's letter approached him with concerns.

"There was a little concern about a voter intimidation effort," Evans explained, saying they didn't want to go public themselves. "One of the concerns is whether or not this government agency, Tualatin Valley Fire & Rescue, is tracking people."

State Rep. Bill Post, R-Keizer/Newberg, told KATU signing a petition is "not the same as signing up for a mailing."

On Facebook, he called the chief's letter "borderline criminal."

"I don't know if it's criminal," Evans said. "Part of the letter talks about how the annexation is not gonna increase anybody's taxes. That is a political argument that would be made by a political campaign in favor of the annexation. Public entities are not allowed to 'electioneer' if you will by advocating for or against ballot measures or candidates."

Chief Duyck said the letter was only meant to inform voters and gather information.

"I fully appreciate his opinion but how else am I supposed to find out what are the issues that folks are concerned about so I can get them the information they need to make educated decisions?" Duyck asked.

He said a couple of residents responded to his letter, thanking him for it and asking for more information.

The secretary of state's office would not say whether the letter violates laws against public employees using work time to support or oppose political measures.

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