Chief Rodney Linz (right) checks on a volunteer firefighter that sustained minor injuries during a Feb. 1, 2020 training exercise in Gales Creek. Photo: Chas Hundley
A lawsuit filed in the U.S. District Court of Oregon on Thursday, September 3 alleges that longtime Banks Fire District 13 employee Linda Hedlund was fired by Banks Fire District Chief Rodney Linz in retaliation for raising concerns over nepotism and violations of district policy with the elected officials on the board of directors that govern the district.
Hedlund served as an executive assistant for the district for 24 years, according to a press release issued by the law firm representing Hedlund, Buchanan Angeli Altschul & Sullivan, LLP.
The lawsuit alleges that Linz gave preferential treatment to his adult daughter, Samantha Linz, who is a volunteer firefighter with the district, pressured another employee to sign off on an unearned certification for her, and then, after concerns were raised by Hedlund and others about these actions and the lack of qualifications to be a firefighter on the part of the younger Linz, had her fired, a move approved by the Banks Fire District board of directors.
“I was genuinely concerned about the safety of the Banks’ community, the possible liability the District was being exposed to and the Chief’s disregard for the District’s own rules when I brought these issues to the Board of Directors,” Hedlund said in the press release issued by the law firm representing her. “I felt the Chief put his personal interests over the interests of the community. He seemed determined to run the department like a dictatorship where even legitimate criticism was not tolerated. I thought the Board would share my concerns and was stunned when they approved the Chief’s decision to fire me.”
Banks Fire District declined to comment on the lawsuit, with public information officer Scott Adams citing district policy of not commenting on personnel issues or litigation relating to personnel issues.
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The lawsuit details a series of steps Hedlund took to raise concerns over these issues, first with Chief Linz, and then with elected officials in the Banks Fire District Board of Directors; it also details a series of steps that Linz allegedly took to quash Hedlund’s concerns, including with verbal and written reprimands, and eventually culminating in her termination, an allegation, if true, that would violate Oregon’s laws protecting whistleblowers as outlined in ORS 659A.203.
Left to right: Chris Lanter, Jonah Singler, Julie Kemper, and Samanth Linz a few weeks after returning from the Camp Fire in California on December 10, 2018. Photo: Chas Hundley
One of the chief complaints outlined in the lawsuit stems from a trip to California in November of 2018 that four firefighters from the district took to assist during the deadly Camp Fire in Paradise, California, which killed at least 85 people and destroyed more than 18,000 buildings.
On the trip were Duty Officer Chris Lanter, Engineer Julie Kemper, volunteer EMT Jonah Singler, and Samantha Linz. At the time, the younger Linz did not possess a valid driver’s license, according to the lawsuit, which concerned Hedlund should the need to drive during an emergency arise. Allegedly, the other district staff and volunteers on the trip saw the younger Linz make numerous mistakes and “generally demonstrate an inability to successfully perform her firefighting duties,” and felt that Linz was putting the safety of their group, and that of the people of Paradise, at risk.
“We are very proud of the group that went down and represented the Banks Fire District really well,” Chief Linz told the Banks Post in a January 2019 story about the group’s trip to the Camp Fire. At the time, he made no mention of the personnel problems stemming from the trip.
The lawsuit notes that four district employees — Hedlund, Lanter, Captain David Senz and Rob Davis — met with two board members in May of 2019 and shared a memorandum outlining their concerns; of those four, only Lanter remains. Davis’ employment was terminated in June 2019; Hedlund was fired on or around September 10, 2019, while Senz resigned before his termination could be enacted, the lawsuit alleges.
“What Linda Hedlund experienced at the District had nothing to do with her competence, skill or experience, which are all well-documented,” stated Dana Sullivan, a partner at Buchanan Angeli Altschul & Sullivan LLP in a press release. “Ms. Hedlund was terminated because she spoke out about the unlawful actions of the District, led by Chief Rodney Linz.”
A court date has not yet been set for the case, which is seeking a number of damages from three claims against the district and Linz.
Combined, Hedlund is seeking reinstatement to her position, at least $900,000 in economic damages; at least $1.5 million in non-economic damages; her legal fees covered; and an amount of punitive damages to be determined.
Hedlund is also seeking a declaration from the Banks Fire District and Linz that she was retaliated against in violation of her free speech rights outlined under the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, as well as a declaration that her rights as a whistleblower were violated.