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

By Natalie Johnson / njohnson@chronline.com

Frustrated Onalaska residents renewed demands for the resignation of Lewis County Fire District 1 commissioners Rich Bainbridge and Bill Kassel Thursday, a week after the forced closure of the district’s main fire station by the state Department of Labor and Industries due to “inhalation hazards” and general dilapidation of the building. 

“We got thrown out of our building a week ago,” Bainbridge said at a special meeting of the district Thursday night at Onalaska High School. “I read the report and talked to both the county and L&I, and from what I’ve seen, there’s nothing there you can dispute. The report was pretty accurate.”

Onalaska Fire Meeting
Lewis County Fire District 1 commissioners Rich Bainbridge, left, and Bill Kassel speak with Onalaska residents Thursday about the closure of the district’s main station after an L&I inspection.

Natalie Johnson / njohnson@chronline.com

The closure of the station at 244 Carlisle Ave. follows the resignation of commissioner Jeff Lee the previous week and the departure of about half the district’s volunteer force in the past month. 

“I decided to step down because I’m really not making a difference trying to educate them on RCWs, policy,” Lee said Friday. “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.”

The commission is accepting letters of interest for the open position until its next regularly scheduled meeting on Jan. 18. 

While a number of residents at Thursday’s special meeting offered to help the district and the commission get through the increasingly difficult situation, they also expressed frustration at a perceived dysfunction among board members and their staff. 

“It looks like chaos,” said Craig Franklin, who was defeated by Kassel in November’s election.

A number of residents spoke in favor of the board, but others, including Kathy Jackson, expressed concerns that the troubles in the district’s management were affecting first responders’ ability to do their job. 

She said her husband is still a volunteer but her son and daughter-in-law were volunteers who resigned. 

“The thing is, neighbors, I don’t actually care how this problem gets solved. We as a community need to solve it and we need to solve it as soon as possible,” she said. “Sooner or later somebody is going to die from those response times we keep being told are OK.”

L&I inspectors visited the district’s main station on Dec. 12 after receiving a complaint. They notified the commission on Dec. 21 of serious problems with the building. Lee said the board passed a motion to abandon the building and find a temporary portable building for a district office. 

Onalaska Fire Meeting
Onalaska resident Craig Franklin speaks during a meeting of the Lewis County Fire District 1 commission Thursday night.

Natalie Johnson / njohnson@chronline.com

On Dec. 28, L&I staff arrived while the commission was holding a special meeting, Lee said, and ordered the building closed immediately due to “known exposure to biological inhalation hazards such as mold, asbestos, mice droppings/hantavirus, exhaust fumes as well as structural dilapidation from systemic wood rot,” according to a notice posted on the station. 

The inspection also found vegetation growing inside the building. 

Lee told The Chronicle he stepped down over concerns about illegal private meetings between Bainbridge and Kassel, among other issues, specifically saying the commissioners wanted to continue the Dec. 28 meeting at a restaurant. The state Open Public Meetings Act requires the public to be informed when a majority of an elected body meets to discuss business. Several residents of the district also accused the commissioners of meeting without public notice at Thursday’s meeting. 

According to the district, L&I has not yet inspected the district’s other two stations, but will likely do so.

Elaine Fischer, of L&I’s public affairs department, said the agency would not give advance notice of future inspections. 

“You want to know who turned it in? I did,” said Mark Conner, a former District 1 chief, during the meeting. 

Conner said he contacted L&I after hearing the district had vehicles in service that were in a state of disrepair and because of concerns over workplace safety. 

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

“I sat in that building working every day for six years,” he said. “I’m glad no one else is going to be sitting in there.”

Conner said he’s submitted a letter of interest for the open commission position.

“I do have a letter of interest but with these two left on the board there’s no point,” he said.

On Nov. 21, the commission held a special meeting packed with more than 100 district residents, many of whom were angry with Kassel and Bainbridge’s decision to fire chief Andrew Martin. 

A third of the district’s volunteers resigned in protest after Martin’s dismissal, saying the commissioners were retaliating against Martin and a volunteer captain who 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 by Martin. 

At that meeting, water was pouring through the damp station’s roof into its apparatus bay into several plastic garbage cans. 

During the meeting, former volunteers and residents asked Bainbridge and Kassel to resign. Many former volunteers said they would come back to the district if the commissioners resigned.

Lee said the district had about 30 volunteers in early November but as of his resignation had 12 to 15. About 12 trained EMTs have left, he told The Chronicle Friday, leaving four, he estimated.

“They need to get personnel back and the only way they’re going to get personnel back is for those two commissioners to step down,” Lee said. 

Bainbridge said Thursday reports that the district is struggling to respond to calls are exaggerated, saying the district’s agreement with Medic One is still in effect.

On Thursday, residents renewed their concerns about Martin’s firing and accused Bainbridge and Kassel of slander toward former volunteers. 

Bainbridge said he wouldn’t step down. Kassel didn’t comment during the meeting. 

“There’s a lot of people that don’t see it the same way you do,” Bainbridge said. “You are not the majority.”

The commissioners made temporary plans to continue district operations in the meantime. Equipment taken from the Carlisle station has been spread between two other stations and donated space in a building in downtown Onalaska.

The commissioners passed a resolution Thursday moving their regular meeting location to 7 p.m. the third Thursday of the month at Onalaska High School. 

Kassel was against shutting off water or other utilities to the station, saying it was “premature.” The commissioners discussed moving the district’s phone line to one of its two other stations. 

“We take it a step at a time,” Bainbridge said of the district’s next move. “It depends on what we find as to what we’ll do next. What we’re trying to do is to find out what options we have and we’d like to … see if there’s anything we can salvage with the building that’s there.”

Bainbridge said Thursday it would be better for the district to try and save the station before talking about building a new one. However, later in the meeting he said, “There’s not a lot to fix. It’s time to move on.”

He clarified for The Chronicle later that he believes the existing structure should be repaired to hold the district over until it can afford a new building. 

“The building has to be approved by a structural engineer to have people in it again,” Fischer said. 

Bainbridge said the district is looking into hiring a company to conduct a test for asbestos. 

“We can’t do anything until that part’s satisfied,” he said. 

Commissioners said they don’t yet know where the asbestos is.

Bainbridge said L&I staff suggested the district might qualify for grants to fix the building.

He also said he’s heard $80,000 was earmarked in the still not approved state capital budget for the district’s station project. The district pays a lobbyist $1,350 per month to work to secure state funding. 

Bainbridge urged residents to send letters to local lawmakers to ask for state funding.

District secretary Linda Patraca noted that she had not yet received a detailed report of what items had been removed from the main station and where they were now. 

Patraca also asked the commissioners Thursday to approve a motion to pay her a $50 reimbursement per month to compensate additional costs related to her working from home as long as the main station was closed. 

At first, Bainbridge and Kassel wanted to discuss the issue in an executive session, which would be closed to the public. Patraca told them that wasn’t allowed under state law. The commissioners at that point said they wanted to table the matter to a future meeting. 

“Am I not doing anything then?” Patraca asked. “I have no place to work.”

The commissioners then approved the request.