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Duty vehicles for personal use, political retaliation and much more noted in report

Reaction to the Spotlight's July 7 story regarding a leaked internal investigation report into actions alleged to have been committed by Ron Youngberg, a former Columbia River Fire and Rescue division chief, has been understandably mixed.

Some have viewed release of the report as an opportunity for closure, relief that — finally — the truth has come out. Others expressed disbelief the good person they know in Youngberg could be the same person whose behavior is documented in the news story, which was derived directly from the investigative report. Still others — a list including the current administration at Columbia River Fire and Rescue, as evidenced in a July 7 release in response to our story — seemed primarily concerned the report was leaked in the first place, even raising a specter of possibility a crime may have been committed.

FILE PHOTO - Ron Youngberg is a former division chief with Columbia River Fire and Rescue who retired in January 2016 following an internal investigation that sustained numerous claims of harassment and mismanagement against him. Youngberg, who was in charge of CRFR operations, was never disciplined for offenses alleged in the report, instead opting to retire. CRFR administrators at the time withheld the report from the public, claiming it was an attorney-client priveleged document.  Disappointingly, however, the CRFR administrators made no statement in the press release regarding behavior detailed in the report. Instead, the takeaway is that CRFR dislikes the airing of its dirty laundry, has moved on, and that's it.

We believe the investigative report is an important public document, one that should have been released for public review more than a year ago but for the all-encompassing protection of attorney-client privilege. The report offers a rare window into internal operations of the largest fire response agency in Columbia County.

In several cases, it exposes concerns about scene management during numerous emergency incidents over the past two decades.

Beyond findings concerning Youngberg's alleged behavior, we have gained an understanding of how CRFR's former fire chief, Jay Tappan, reacted to it, and how some of the rank-and-file employees within CRFR perceived and reacted to CRFR management.

At times it was the policies Youngberg was shown to have not broken that yielded insight.

We have learned more about the agency policy of using CRFR response vehicles in everyday life — it's allowable, but does it match community expectations? Tappan believed it did not, yet made no effort to halt or place sideboards on the practice, a privilege that was ultimately abused.

We now know of the practice of division chiefs not being required to respond to emergencies, even during calls for assistance when they are the nearest on-duty unit. Is that what the community expected? Some, even the author of the report, indicate it is not. But the practice persisted, much to the chagrin of firefighters.

We now know there was a divide between CRFR and staff at Scappoose Rural Fire District, personal grudges that spilled over into operational breakdowns.

And much more.

Because of this and our belief the public has a right to such information, we are releasing a redacted version of the 73-page investigative report for public review (Editor's note: Report contains graphic content and language. Reader discretion is advised). Though the version we received had not been redacted, we believe the names of persons — whistleblowers, really — who spoke with investigators under the condition of confidentiality should not be outed. Other redactions include references to possible medical conditions and the names of alleged harassment victims.

As is often the case with internal investigation documents of this variety, details are revealed about a public agency's work environment, philosophy and culture. That's why the release of such documents is so important.

As CRFR existed under Tappan and Youngberg, we're left with the impression Youngberg had a free hand. Through a request to the state Department of Public Safety Standards and Training, we know Tappan had no fire or paramedic certifications. Youngberg had operational command. We can't help but wonder if many of the documented activities in the investigative report could have been avoided if the fire chief had certifications and knowledge of incident response, had a final say over how the department ran its core emergency operations.

Ultimately, the CRFR elected board members, and their endorsement of a non-trained, non-certified fire chief, carries the blame.

On attorney-client privilege

A July 7 press release from CRFR in response to our news story is correct that former Columbia County District Attorney Stephen Atchison found attorney-client privilege exempted the document from release. But that's not quite the full story.

Relating to public documents, the attorney-client privilege is somewhat recent. It surfaced during a 2007 decision involving Klamath Falls School District, which is very similar to the Youngberg scenario. The courts at that time essentially ruled the attorney-client privilege was absolute when an attorney orchestrates an investigation at the request of a public body. So long as the attorney acts as the intermediary between the investigator and the public officials, the investigation's result remains secret.

Since then, the Legislature has added other variables for consideration for when and if the privilege applies. Yet, attorney-client privilege remains largely a catch-all exemption for public agencies that seek to immunize public documents, such as investigations, from public review — and, really, public accountability. CRFR knew as such when it commissioned the Youngberg report. Actions were taken to keep the information in the document secret. Other than a leak, there really is no way around it.

It is notable, as well, that CRFR also claimed the investigative report was also exempt from disclosure under Oregon's Public Records Law. Atchison found it was not.

We believe reconsideration of the attorney-client privilege exemption is long overdue. In our present condition, elected officials willing to abdicate their authority as government decision-makers, instead leaving it up to hired attorneys, have created a gaping loophole in which to flush accountability down the drain.

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