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Weighmaster death stirs issues

State report could focus on safety, training concerns


Photo Credit: TRIBUNE FILE PHOTO - A highway memorial honors Grady Waxenfelter, a Clackamas County weighmaster who was killed near the intersection of Highway 224 and Amisigger Road of Feb. 6.It seems like everyone who knew Grady Waxenfelter loved him. The Estacada man many describe as warm, caring, an elder at his church and a beloved father of three was shot and killed Feb. 6 on duty as a Clackamas County Weighmaster.

But while everyone is mourning Waxenfelter’s loss, some are also saying that Clackamas County’s Weighmaster Program and its supervisor, Kevin Peterson, have been skirting disaster for years.

In the next few days, Oregon OSHA is expected to release its six-month investigation into the workplace incident, which could carry a hefty fine for the county.

Don Loving, a union spokesperson, says county employees worried that their uniforms and unmarked vehicles gave the impression they were law enforcement. However, they had never had any training in how to safely make traffic stops, which, according to documents, they did about 15 to 20 times each week.

“They have been expressing concerns to management about this issue for several years,” Loving says. “They were concerned that they could run across some nut and be mistaken for a full public safety officer.”

Clackamas County officials — including Peterson, the architect of Clackamas County’s Weighmaster Program — were asked several times for comment on this story. County spokesperson Tim Heider says the structure of the Weighmaster Program is in flux but could not give a timeline or any more details of coming changes. In a written statement, County Administrator Don Krupp says he took an independent report’s findings “very seriously” but also gave no specifics on the direction the county might take the program.

Waxenfelter’s widow, Tedra, declined to be interviewed for this story. Family friend Estacada Mayor Brent Dodrill says she had read the report and was surprised at its findings, but declined to comment.

Loving, the AFSCME union spokesperson, says the labor organization has a good relationship with Clackamas County. But the weighmaster employees’ concerns, he says, were not part of a contract negotiation and were never acted on by management.

“It’s unfortunate that it took a tragedy to really spur the county into taking these steps,” he says.

No training?

According to police, the morning of Feb. 6, Waxenfelter stopped an O’Malley Brothers Trucking rig near the corner of Highway 224 and Amissigger Road to talk to the driver about a lack of a license plate. Waxenfelter, who had started as a weighmaster in 2005, was shot in the head. The suspect, Dirck Morgan White, escaped in a silver four-door 2004 Mercedes 320. White was last seen in Iowa and law enforcement officers are still searching for leads to his whereabouts.

An independent report released June 30 by the county had harsh criticism for the program, describing a significant lack of training, little personal safety equipment and a managerial style out of sync with how the state and other Oregon counties operate.

“As far as training in the areas of personal safety (verbal judo, pepper spray, use of physical force, etc.) we could not find any training,” wrote report author Wes Curtis of Commercial Truck Consulting. “In fact, other than sending the ‘permit specialist’ to DOT Drug Interdiction training in 2012, ‘NO’ real training had been provided to their employees over the course of their employment in safety related issues. (sic)”

Calls to Peterson at the Transportation Maintenance Division were not returned.

Following the release of the report, County Administrator Don Krupp put the patrol functions of the Weighmaster Program on permanent suspension pending a re-evaluation of the program.

The independent report also alluded to problems higher up the management structure of the weighmaster program, which is part of the Clackamas County Department of Transportation and Development, then headed by now-retired manager Samuel Irving.

“It appears Mr. Peterson has built the county Weighmaster Program without any supervisory training or guidance,” Curtis says of the current supervisor. “Mr. Peterson further stated that he built the county Weighmaster Program from basically nothing to what it is today.”

Reacting violently

Some of this could be because few people understand what a weighmaster does and how.

A weighmaster’s responsibility is to ensure that commercial vehicles, such as semi-trucks, aren’t carrying too much weight or otherwise endangering the health of the roads and the other drivers. They also pre-authorize freight, including oversized or wide loads, and give trucks a route of appropriate roads to use or requirements for signage or escort vehicles.

In Oregon there are state weighmasters, called Motor Carrier Enforcement Officers, that keep an eye on state highways. Otherwise, the responsibility falls to counties, most of which give it to their sheriffs. In six out of the 36 counties, there is a separate civilian weighmaster program, which is usually in the roads department.

In the case of the state-funded enforcement officers, they spend most of their time at weigh stations, said Edward Scrivner, field motor carrier services manager for the Oregon Department of Transportation.

“Unlike Clackamas County, where they would rove around like a patrol, we don’t do that,” he says. “We don’t do it that way and it’s not for me to judge how someone else structures their programs.”

Whenever some of the 75 state weight enforcement officers do stray from their fixed stations and set up a temporary weight enforcement area, there are flaggers and signs to help prepare truckers.

“It’s really, abundantly clear to everybody because of our signage that we’re weighing in a nontraditional area,” Scrivner says.

The 13-year weight enforcement veteran says that though people can at times get upset, he has never heard of a public safety incident involving a weighmaster, aside from Waxenfelter. Scrivner adds that because he is a former police officer he has chosen to structure his program with safety as the highest priority.

“I wouldn’t have a person out trying to patrol and yet not be equipped to deal with something like what happened,” he says. “There’s always a chance that you’re going to cross paths with someone who doesn’t think like normal people, who reacts violently like this.”

Model program

In Lane County, Weighmaster Dolores Smith spends most of her day at county weigh stations and checking on abandoned vehicles but does do some patrolling for safety inspections and weight violations.

“Nothing has really changed because of his (Waxenfelter’s) death,” Smith says. “I think we had a good operation before his death and we continue to have a good one after.”

Smith has received safety training in making traffic stops, including how to stop a vehicle and how to talk to angry drivers. “We have received many, many hours of training,” she says, estimating between 1,000 and 1,500 hours in various subjects during her career.

Unlike in Clackamas County, Smith and the other weighmaster in Lane County have both been authorized as special deputies with the power to cite and arrest in a limited scope of enforcement activities. The program was part of the sheriff’s office until just last year when it was moved to public works.

The independent report listed Lane County as a model program for Clackamas County in its reevaluation of its Weighmaster Program.

“When comparing Clackamas County Weighmaster Program to other county weighmaster programs, it was readily apparent that Clackamas County was lacking and deficient in areas of training, employee safety and the misguided perception of being law-enforcement orientated.”