Chief Rodney Linz at the Banks Fire District headquarters in Banks. Photo: Chas Hundley
The Banks Fire District and Chief Rodney Linz agreed to pay a $250,000 sum after a former employee of Banks Fire District #13 sued the district last year, alleging that Banks Fire District Chief Rodney Linz and the district retaliated against her after she raised concerns over nepotism and violations of district policy with the elected officials on the board of directors that govern the district.
In a final judgement issued to settle the case Tuesday, September 7 by Chief United States District Judge Marco A. Hernández of the U.S. District Court for the District of Oregon, Linda Hedlund was awarded $115,001 to be paid by the district and Linz with another $135,000 to be paid out to Hedlund’s attorneys for the cost of legal fees.
According to district spokesperson Scott Adams, the money—and the district’s own legal fees—will be paid by the Special Districts Association of Oregon, an associate that provides legal assistance and insurance type services to the fire district and other districts across the state.
In total, Linz and the district will be required to pay $250,001 to Hedlund and the law firm representing her, Portland-based Buchanan Angeli Altschul & Sullivan LLP.
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“I am happy that the case is finally over and I hope that the Fire District’s Board will rethink how it addresses employee complaints in the future,” Hedlund said in a Wednesday, September 8 email to the Banks Post.
“Both parties have resolved the issue amicably,” Banks Fire District spokesperson Mitch Ward said in a Wednesday phone call with the Banks Post. Ward declined to comment on the matter further, citing legal advice.
The final judgement was made after the Banks Fire District issued an offer of judgement to bring the lawsuit to a close, which was accepted by Hedlund and then by the judge presiding over the lawsuit.
The monetary awards are to be paid out within 30 days. The Banks Fire District Board of Directors meets Wednesday, September 8 for a regularly scheduled meeting at the district offices in Banks at 6 p.m.
Hedlund served as an executive assistant for the district for 24 years, according to a press release issued in 2020 by the law firm representing Hedlund.
The original lawsuit alleged 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 2020. “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.”
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.
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.
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
“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 alleged.
“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 in 2020. “Ms. Hedlund was terminated because she spoke out about the unlawful actions of the District, led by Chief Rodney Linz.”
Hedlund had sought reinstatement to her position, at least $900,000 in economic damages; at least $1.5 million in non-economic damages; her legal fees covered; an amount of punitive damages to be determined, and 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.
This story has been updated with information on where the funds to pay out the damages and legal fees will come from, and to clarify the nature of the settlement.