CANNON BEACH — The petition drive to remove three Cannon Beach Rural Fire Protection District directors was driven by the efforts of Cannon Beach resident Susan Neuwirth, angered by the sudden firing of former Chief Mike Balzer in October. “I never wanted to do this,” Neuwirth said. “But at the end of the day, I’m proud of it. Too often people sit around and bitch and moan about local politics. If you don’t go to meetings and you don’t speak up, you can’t complain.”
Board of directors President Sharon Clyde, Linda Beck-Sweeney and Garry Smith are named in the recall petition; a fourth director, Bob Cerelli, who voted against Balzer’s removal, was not. A fifth director’s seat is vacant after a retirement and remains to be filled.
Clyde, Beck-Sweeney and Smith have until 5 p.m. Wednesday to either resign or submit a written statement of justification to the Clerk’s Office.
The directors have not yet announced their intentions, and released a statement Friday defending their actions in dismissing the former chief.
“Mike was let go when the majority of the directors, elected by district voters, became concerned about his ability to perform the administrative skills required of the head of a public agency,” the directors wrote.
Neuwirth said she had never been “a political person” before. “In fact, I even registered to vote in order to file this petition,” she said.
“I didn’t know Mike or the people involved,” Neuwirth said. “I talked to people who had been affected by it. The unanimous opinion was the board does not treat volunteers with any respect and they never treated the chief with any respect.”
Neuwirth attended a November fire district meeting in which members of the community faced the board. “They told them how angry they were at the board for treating someone of Mike’s caliber in such a despicable manner,” she said.
Neuwirth launched the recall petition drive in January. “I realized we could sit around and be appalled, or we could exercise our right,” she said.
In seeking to gather the minimum 125 signatures required in Clatsop County to force a recall election, Neuwirth said she “never forced, and never coerced” residents to sign the petition. Neuwirth said firefighters and residents alike appreciated Balzer’s contributions to the community. “The firefighters told me they’d rather be in the field with Mike than anyone they’ve ever been with,” Neuwirth said.
Neuwirth said she is “staying away” from a separate lawsuit field by Balzer seeking his job back and damages.
Balzer filed a civil suit in Clatsop County Court against the fire district, claiming the firing was motivated by “personal animus and did not constitute the good faith sufficient cause under the employment agreement.” He seeks more than $677,000 in damages and relief.
“I stayed away from the lawsuit because they’re separate issues,” Neuwirth said. “Mike has every right to do what he needs to do, but as far as I’m concerned, this is for the community, I’m doing it for the firefighters. They thank me daily.”
Their decision could create an immediate vacancy or vacancies to fill. If Beck-Sweeney, Smith or Clyde fight the recall, they will face an election challenge.
Will Neuwirth run for the office?
“I would hope other people would step up, but if I needed to I would gladly step up,” she said. “It is one of the most important boards in this town.”
She said she hopes a recall election won’t be needed.
“If they resign, they will save the district a lot of money, and if Mike is reinstated, the portion that would affect the district, as far as the lawsuit, would go away,” Neuwirth said. “This is not about the money.”
If the directors do not resign by Wednesday night, the Clerk’s Office anticipates a recall election on April 5 for voters within the fire district.