Onalaska Fire

Former Onalaska Fire Chief, Captain File Request to Recall Commissioners

By Natalie Johnson / njohnson@chronline.com

Two former Lewis County Fire District 1 volunteers, including the district’s former chief, filed a request for a recall petition Wednesday against the district’s two remaining elected commissioners listing 11 alleged violations of state law.

District residents have called for the resignations of the Onalaska district’s commission chair Rich Bainbridge and commissioner Bill Kassel on several occasions since the pair voted in November to fire chief Andrew Martin. Since that vote, half of the district’s volunteers have quit, the third commissioner Jeff Lee resigned and the state Department of Labor and Industries closed the district’s main station due to dangers from asbestos, mold, mouse droppings, rotting wood and plants growing inside the building.

 Onalaska Residents Call for Commission’s Resignation as Fire Station Closed by State

Many of the volunteers who have resigned in the past two months have said they would return if Bainbridge and Kassel left, but the commissioners have said they have no intentions of stepping aside.

“Public pressure really wasn’t working on getting them to abide by the law,” Martin said on his decision to request a recall.

Lee told The Chronicle last week he resigned due to concerns about Kassel and Bainbridge violating state law.

“At this point, I don’t want to get sued, and it’s to the point they’re breaking so many laws I can’t be a part of that,” Lee said on Friday.

Martin and former captain Randy Tobler dropped off the request for a recall just before noon Wednesday at the Lewis County Auditor’s Office.

The request will be forwarded to the Lewis County Prosecutor’s Office, which will have 15 days to prepare the request to go before a Lewis County Superior Court Judge who will have another 15 days to consider the request and decide whether it meets the criteria for a recall.

 Residents Ask Onalaska Fire Commissioners to Resign After Controversial Firing of Chief

If the judge rules the recall request follows state law, the county will issue petitions.

Lewis County Elections Supervisor Heather Boyer said Wednesday she hadn’t yet calculated how many signatures would be needed to get the recall on a ballot.

Martin said he believed they would need about 280 signatures from registered voters in the district.

The request for a recall lists 11 separate allegations of state law violations by the commission, dating back to February, 2016.

They include several instances in which the board allegedly called an executive session regarding complaints against a public employee without giving “substantial information to show that a complaint existed,” and one in which they reportedly called an executive session to evaluate an employee’s performance without notifying the employee ahead of time.

The request also accuses the commissioners of holding meetings of a quorum, or majority, of commissioners without notifying the public, and of discussing district business privately before meetings.

The state Open Public Meetings Act prohibits a voting majority of an elected board of meeting without proper notice to the public.

The final four allegations pertain to meetings held in the past two months, including the Nov. 16 meeting in which the board met in executive session to discuss an employee’s performance, after which Bainbridge and Kassel voted to fire Martin.

Lee told The Chronicle there was no discussion among the commissioners about the firing.

“I think they made their minds up before,” he said in November.

The recall request also takes issue with the Nov. 21 meeting at which a new chief was hired, also without any public discussion.

“Both commissioners had selected the chief through personal meetings prior to the Nov. 21st 2017 meeting,” the request states.

At that meeting, residents asked the commissioners to explain the decision to fire Martin, who has been a volunteer with the district since he was 16 and is well-respected in the district and community.

Bainbridge and Kassel denied that firing Martin was personally motivated, and said they’d been having problems with him for more than a year.

“He was not following our direction,” Kassel said, in particular saying Martin refused to deal with “quite a number” of “harassment” complaints, but he was not specific.

Martin, Tobler and former assistant chief Rhonda Volk told Onalaska residents at the meeting that Tobler reported that a member of Kassel’s family used district funds to buy an expensive stethoscope that she used outside of the district. The volunteer was reprimanded and demoted.

Shortly after, Bainbridge and Kassel began collecting complaints about Tobler and asked Martin to fire him. Martin refused.

The recall request also accuses the commissioners of attempting to hold a meeting outside of the confines of the OPMA on Dec. 28, the day L&I Inspectors closed the Carlisle Avenue station, and reports that commissioners did not follow a published agenda for a special meeting on Jan. 4.