Judge Dismisses Onalaska Fire Commissioner Recall Request

By Natalie Johnson / njohnson@chronline.com

An effort by the former chief of Lewis County Fire District 1 in Onalaska to recall the district’s two sitting commissioners will not reach Onalaska residents’ ballots.

Lewis County Superior Court Judge Joely O’Rourke ruled to dismiss all 11 charges in the recall request in a written order Friday, following a hearing Jan. 30 in superior court, noting in her ruling that state law protects public officials from “frivolous or unsubstantiated charges.”

“An elected official can only be recalled for cause,” she wrote. “A recall for cause must be factually and legally sufficient.”

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Former Chief Andrew Martin and former Captain Randy Tobler filed a request to recall Lewis County Fire District 1 commissioners Rich Bainbridge and Bill Kassel on Jan. 10, citing what they believed to be 11 violations of state law primarily regarding the state Open Public Meetings Act.

At the Jan. 30 hearing, Martin argued that the commissioners had received training on the Open Public Meetings Act, but chose to disregard it.

“When it’s convenient, they follow it. When it’s not, they don’t,” he said.

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Attorney Brian Snure, representing Bainbridge and Kassel, argued that Martin did not properly document his allegations, and said commissioners could not be recalled for violation the OPMA without intent.

“We’re pleased with the judge’s decision and believe it’s correct,” Snure said. “We would hope the people would start working cooperatively.”

Martin did not immediately return requests for comment Monday.

O’Rourke’s ruling addresses each of the charges in the recall request individually. In nearly every charge, she wrote that Martin failed to provide a factual basis for his claims because they were presented without any supporting documentation.

“At the hearing, Mr. Martin made only vague references to his knowledge of the allegations and failed to supplement the record with evidentiary support in the form of pleadings, affidavits, testimony, meeting minutes transcripts, emails or other relevant document,” O’Rourke wrote.

O’Rourke ordered all 11 charges in the recall request to be dismissed with prejudice, meaning they cannot be refiled.

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“The court’s function is limited to evaluating the legal and factual sufficiency of the charges,” O’Rourke wrote in her order. “Therefore, this court’s ruling does not reflect an approval or rejection of the public officials in question, and in no way does it interfere with the public’s right to scrutinize its elected officials or participate in elections.”

Onalaska residents have called for the resignations of Bainbridge and Kassel on several occasions since the commissioners voted to fire Martin as chief in November, which led to a walkout of about half the fire district’s volunteers.

Third commissioner Jeff Lee resigned in December, just after the state Department of Labor and Industries closed the district’s main station for concerns about air quality, mold, asbestos, mouse droppings and plants growing inside the waterlogged building.

The Onalaska Fire District’s next regular meeting is scheduled for 7 p.m. Feb. 15 at Onalaska High School.

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