The Same Old Song and Dance

Who is John Nohr? Camas city officials and staff did not seem too concerned with the answer to that question during the Monday, April 6th City Council meeting. They didn’t ask for John’s address, as they do with nearly every other citizen prior to comment. They didn’t seem curious at all - almost like they knew John well enough to overlook it. Maybe they didn’t need to worry that John might say something critical that evening, because maybe John is one of the “good guys” in their eyes. After all, though never introduced as such by council or by John himself, John Nohr is a Clark County Fire Chief.

You can hear Chief Nohr’s comment below:

Now let’s compare a moment from that same meeting, only minutes later, with a much different exchange. This time the comment was from another citizen named John, John Ley. Anyone who pays attention to Camas public comment has likely heard the reasoned and friendly tone of Camas citizen John Ley. It’s often complimentary, but critical when it needs to be, especially when city financials are involved. As this John started his comments, the city clerk LOUDLY and URGENTLY interrupted to make him state a name and address for the record before he could be allowed to proceed.

You can hear John Ley’s comment below:

Inexplicably, Chief Nohr was allowed to launch right into his comment, which consisted almost entirely of positive affirmations for council. There were no interruptions for the chief and no ask for an address. Only minutes later, as citizen John Ley started to speak in what the council might have reasonably expected to be a critical tone with some of their recent actions considered, he was IMMEDIATELY interrupted, spoken over forcefully, as the city clerk demanded his full name and address. Is there a different set of rules for certain citizens in Camas?

Chief Nohr had a prestigious local title worth disclosing as he spoke to you that evening. You, the Camas taxpayers, actually help pay his $100k plus a year salary - although the actual amount of his compensation is ultimately approved by the Camas city council. In addition to omitting his current job title, he also didn’t seem to think it was relevant that you knew that past and future funding for his department is approved or denied by the very people he was complementing so robustly that evening. WATCH Camas thinks these are relevant points that disclose a potential conflict of interest between a citizen and an employee.

We also think it’s relevant that you know that only a couple of years prior to his hiring as Fire Chief, Chief Nohr was once Camas Commissioner Nohr. Appointed by then mayor Scott Higgins and approved by council at that time, Nohr sat on the first Camas Salary commission starting in 2014. His group once approved substantial pay raises for many of the same Camas’ city councilors (Anderson, Smith, Hogan and Cheney still serving today) that he so fully appreciated during his April 6th comments.

A handful of meetings between June and July

John and his fellow Salary Commissioners (members at that time were current chair Erika Cox, Matt Ransom, Matthew McBride, Barry Burnham and John Nohr. ) were appointed in June of 2014. By October 2014 they were recommending raises for the mayor and council - Mayor Higgins alone saw a $10,800 raise in a single year. As reported by the Camas-Washougal Post-Record, “With the changes approved by the Salary Commission, the Camas mayor’s salary is now equal to that of Vancouver’s mayor.” In contrast, Vancouver has nearly 10X the citizens that Camas does.

In the video below, you can see the performance for yourself. The entire meeting is less than three minutes long but the optics are powerful. The meeting consists of a roll call, reading off raises and multiple thank yous traded between past and current chair Erica Cox and then city manager Pete Capell.

Remember that Commissioner Cox bestows her own glowing praise to council during this same April 6th call.

Cox might be surprised to hear that the city of Camas website doesn’t actually list the Salary Commission as an active volunteer board in town. That board does have newly appointed members approved by current mayor Barry McDonnell. In searching, WATCH Camas found that while the online records for all Camas city meetings go back to 2012 in general, there is no meeting record available for the referenced “handful of meetings between June and July” mentioned in this article about Nohr and his fellow commissioners approving those salary raises. The earliest records shown are in October of that same year. Those meetings happened, so what happened to those meeting minutes?

It’s important to consider that when a Salary Commission “doesn’t do its job” well enough, there can be consequences with a distinct finality. Battle Ground didn’t like the salary recommendations from their Salary Commission a couple years ago, so they went ahead and abolished the commission entirely and scheduled a vote on their own raises for the following meeting.

“The district searched across the West Coast”

Before working on this side of the river, Chief Nohr spent 28 years working in the Portland Fire Department until 2016. In May of that year he became Clark County’s first Fire Chief hired from outside the district’s ranks. Interim Chief Ron Oliver was quoted at the time as saying,

“The district searched across the West Coast, whittling a field of six applicants from Oregon, Washington, Nevada and California down to two following meetings with firefighters, city government and agency representatives within the district and other stakeholders”.

As you read this article, Camas is currently conducting just such a search for a new city administrator to replace Pete Capell. They have a nationwide pool of wonderfully qualified candidates to market the position towards, some with enough degrees and enthusiasm to fill one of Camas’ lakes most likely. Citizens will watch to see if Camas’ extensive search will again conveniently land on a familiar face right in our backyard.

He continued to maintain his position in Portland

John Nohr’s transition from Portland to Clark County had a complication worth mentioning. An Oregonian Article from May 25th, 2016 titled “Portland fire veteran sought vacation leave through mid-July, though started as Clark County fire chief in May” began:

“A veteran Portland fire bureau division chief started as chief for Clark County Fire and Rescue on May 2, but was granted vacation leave from the Portland bureau through July 19, which will allow him to be eligible to retire under the Portland Fire and Police Disability and Retirement Fund.”

The article went on to explain that through city documents the paper had obtained, it had become clear that Chief Nohr had worked to technically maintain his position at Portland Fire using Vacation leave through July 19th of that year, though he started work for Clark County on May 2nd. That extension to the 19th just so happened to enable him to be eligible to retire with greater Portland public safety pension benefits.

The article quoted the city’s Human Resources manager as saying she had informed the Fire Bureau that such an arrangement violated two separate city human resources administrative rules.

  1. A rule regarding separation from city service, said that, "Employees who are leaving the city service for any reason may not elect to use accrued vacation, rather than have their vacation paid out, to extend their employment with the City. For example, if an employee states that they wish to resign at some date in the future but stay on City payroll using accrued vacation until that date, that request must be denied.” What Chief Nohr did was literally the handbook example of how to violate the rule.

  2. Another rule regarding outside employment says, "No person holding a budgeted position in the city shall be granted a leave of absence for the purpose of engaging in outside employment.''

That HR manager had written an email back on April 19th of that year, weeks before Nohr started in Camas, to say that absent approval of a special ordinance by the City Council, the (Portland) city rules "prohibit what Nohr wants to do''.

The article finished:

“Nohr said he sought the extended vacation with Portland fire to allow him to "test out'' the new job as Clark County's fire chief, though he'd already signed a contract with Clark County.”

If we listen back to past meetings and notice which “average citizens” are not asked for their names or addresses during comment, or maybe the ones referred to by first name only in a familiar tone, will we find more stories like this?

Let’s try this again

Now that you have the context that you were denied on April 6th, how do you feel about this comment to a city council from an average citizen?

Chief Nohr started by listing everything he appreciated - including Camas’ flushing toilets. He appreciated the city council, he appreciated the city in general, he appreciated Police Officers, Firefighters and Paramedics. He appreciated Parks, he appreciated Open Spaces, He appreciated the Library, He appreciated the roads, He appreciated the drinking water and he appreciated “the toilets that can always be flushed”.

Chief Nohr’s comment soared into a crescendo as he finished in grand fashion:

“But right now, what I appreciate most is YOU, the sitting members of our city council. I appreciate that you devote numerous hours per month to attend untold numbers of meetings so that you can fully understand the issues at hand. I appreciate that you are available to community members and take the time to listen to everyone, and not just those few vocal critics of government. I appreciate that you continue to move this city forward and that you address the business of the city that needs to get done today, so that we can continue to enjoy our Police Officers, Firefighters, Parks, Libraries, Roads, Water and the ability to flush our toilets tomorrow. Thank you for serving on city council, and thank you for your service to our wonderful community.”

He then concluded by stating his name and his address for the record. Unprompted, of course.