Onalaska Fire District Secretary Quits; Commission Blames Community Members for Disarray

By Natalie Johnson / njohnson@chronline.com

Another contentious Lewis County Fire District 1 meeting in Onalaska Thursday night was punctuated by the mid-meeting resignation of the district’s secretary, which residents said is one more step toward the collapse of the fire department. 

“So my question is, you have a significant portion of the fire department down, now you’re out a secretary who left without notice, so you have no one to fill her shoes or the job that she did,” former Chief Andrew Martin said at the meeting. “How much farther are you guys going to let this go before … you start making some compromises?”

He said things would only continue to get worse at the district if commissioners continued ignoring the concerns of residents. 

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“Is that a threat?” commissioner Kevin Emerson replied.

Martin said the next step would be to inform agencies such as the state Department of Health, the state Department of Labor and Industries and other organizations that regulate fire districts of the perceived shortcomings of the district’s leaders and the situations they have created. 

“We have no problems turning you guys over and letting you sort it out with them. That’s what happened with L&I and the building,” he said. 

In November, half of the district’s volunteers quit after board members Rich Bainbridge and Bill Kassel voted to fire Martin. 

A number of vocal residents and former volunteers argue that the decision to fire Martin was personally motivated, stemming from his reprimand of a member of Kassel’s family in the fire district. 

Since then, commissioner Jeff Lee resigned and the state Department of Labor & Industries closed the district’s main station on Carlisle Avenue due to dangers from asbestos, mold, mouse droppings, rotting wood and plants growing inside the building.

Bainbridge and Kassel voted at the district’s Feb. 15 meeting to appoint Emerson as the district’s third commissioner. Emerson and Craig Franklin, who was defeated by Kassel in the 2017 general election, both applied for the position. 

Nearly five months after Martin’s dismissal, the district has yet to hire a permanent chief. Adam Myer has acted as interim chief since November. 

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Lesly Varin, representing the Onalaska Concerned Citizen’s Committee, read a prepared statement to the commissioners Thursday night bringing up those issues as well as community concerns about training, record keeping, the use of district vehicles for private purposes and favoritism toward relatives of commissioners, among others. 

She renewed calls from members of the group for Bainbridge and Kassel, or just one of the two, to resign their position, saying Martin and former volunteers would return. 

Community members have asked Bainbridge and Kassel to resign on numerous occasions since November. 

“Neither one of us are leaving,” Bainbridge said. “You don’t give us any credit for being community people.”

All three commissioners argued that former volunteers and residents speaking out against the commission are actually to blame for the district’s disarray.

“If you want to help us you’ll do something besides stay on the negative side,” Bainbridge said. “We have a thing to try and put together here and every time you can throw up an obstacle, the group is doing it. What do you think the recall was?” 

Martin filed a request for a recall of Bainbridge and Kassel in January. The request was later denied in Lewis County Superior Court. 

Kassel and Bainbridge also continued to deny firing Martin, despite the fact that the vote happened in a public meeting and was recorded. The recording, played back in a second public meeting in mid-November, clearly recorded the commissioners’ vote to “dismiss” Martin as chief. 

There was no further discussion, Neither commissioner addressed Martin to ask him to step down on the record, as Kassel asserted again Thursday.

“I am not lying,” Kassel said. “What do you expect from a person to have s— thrown at him, to sit up here and take your abuse, you know?”

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Emerson, in his second meeting as a fire district commissioner, also spoke in support of the longtime commissioners. 

“It’s like all the efforts you’re doing, you’re trying to get rid of Rich and Bill almost at any cost. Getting rid of Rich and Bill might cause you to destroy the department completely,” he said. 

Linda Patraca quit her job as secretary before the above exchanges between residents and the commission, leaving the district without a secretary for the last half hour of the meeting. The commissioners adjourned without appointing anyone to the position.

Patraca handled the majority of day-to-day business of the district, including payroll, bookkeeping, filing of medical and legal documents, keeping minutes, running meetings and acting as a point of contact for the district and other agencies. 

Her exit came after a 30-minute executive session that Emerson called midway through the meeting for the purpose of reviewing the performance of a public employee. She was excluded from the first half of the closed-door session, then asked to return and speak with the commissioners and interim chief Adam Myer. 

Emerson’s request for the executive session — at which no minutes are kept and which members of the public are not entitled to attend — came immediately after a discussion of how Patraca was taking college classes during the day and completing much of her work for the district outside of regular business hours. Patraca has worked from home since L&I closed the district’s main station three months ago for mold, asbestos and mouse droppings. 

Before the executive session, she also expressed frustration that Myer was not returning emails about district business, and that volunteers were not filing reports on EMS activities in a timely fashion, as required by law. 

She noted the district still had eight incomplete reports from February as of Thursday night’s meeting. 

She also noted that training was not being properly documented, also a concern of residents in attendance at Thursday’s meeting, and said the district had not been represented at Lewis County Fire Chief’s Association meetings since Martin’s departure.

The Chronicle reached out to Patraca Friday. She declined to comment further.

Plans in Place to Remove Mold, Asbestos at Closed Main Station

Early in the meeting, the board discussed the status of its main station at 244 Carlisle Ave., which was closed by the state Department of Labor and Industries in late December for air quality concerns, including mold, asbestos and mouse droppings. Inspectors also found plants growing inside a portion of the station. 

Fire district personnel have only recently been allowed to re-enter the building. 

Ronn Schuttie, an area resident volunteering to help the district regarding the station, reported he met with Lewis County building official Doyle Sanford and got an update on the structural stability of the Carlisle Avenue station. 

“It was better than expected,” Schuttie said. He added L&I needed a structural assessment before crews could fully test for asbestos.

In an email dated March 1 from Sanford to Schuttie included in the district’s agenda packet for Thursday, Sanford included his assessment of the structure. 

“My findings are the structures are in dire need of maintenance and repairs but seem generally structurally sound,” he wrote. 

Sanford suggested “interior finishes” be removed to allow the station to dry fully, and suggested treatment for mold. 

“The spore samples in the building were equal to what you’d normally find outdoors during the month of January, so it’s really not alarming, but we still have to deal with it because it’s a workplace,” Schuttie said.

He also suggested clearing brush and vegetation away from the structure and listed options for making the building more watertight. 

“The leaking roof appears to be very fixable,” Schuttie said. 

The board voted to approve an expenditure of up to $10,000 for work to remove moldy walls and ceiling interiors, including some asbestos abatement.

Commissioners also discussed an $80,000 award set aside in the state capital budget for architecture and design for a new station. The commissioners formally voted to accept the award. 

Patraca noted she needed to complete additional paperwork before the money would be awarded. 

The commissioners briefly discussed a cost estimate from meyArchitecture for construction of an apparatus building, headquarters building and site work for a total of $3.6 million. The commission took no action regarding the estimate. Bainbridge said he wanted to meet with the architect again.