Onalaska fire commissioners facing recall effort

Thursday, January 11, 2018 at 7:45 pm

By Sharyn L. Decker
Lewis County Sirens news reporter

CHEHALIS – A movement to recall two elected officials who oversee the Onalaska fire department got underway yesterday.

Former Fire Chief Andrew Martin filed a request for a recall petition for Lewis County Fire District 1 Commissioners Rich Bainbridge and Bill Kassel. There are normally three commissioners on the board, but Jeff Lee resigned at the end of last month.

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Commissioner Rich Bainbridge

Lee said he decided to quit the night Labor and Industries and Lewis County informed them their main station was condemned and they had to vacate immediately.

“The two commissioners tapped me on the shoulder to say, we’re going to Rib Eye to talk with L&I, and I said, you can’t do that,” Lee said.

His continuing frustration was with his fellow commissioners failing to make sure they follow the proper protocol for public meetings.

“I can’t be part of that anymore, I don’t want that liability,” Lee said.

In mid-November, the commissioners dismissed Martin as chief, and six other volunteers either turned in their gear or submitted letters of resignation in protest. Five more responders have left since then, leaving the department at half its previous size.

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Commissioner Bill Kassel

Martin said at the time, he was refusing to further punish a member who had brought to his attention a misdeed by another member, who is a relative of Commissioner Kassel. Assistant Chief Rhonda Volk called the commissioners’ move retaliation and she resigned at a well-attended and contentious emergency meeting.

Several of the former volunteers indicated they would return if Bainbridge and Kassel stepped down.

The paperwork filed by Martin yesterday morning with the Lewis County Auditor’s Office cites as justification for a recall numerous instances of the board violating the state Open Public Meetings Act.

“Public pressure wasn’t working, so we’re going the legal route, and see what happens,” Martin said.

He said there are 15 to 20 people behind the cause, prepared to go door to door to collect signatures to get a recall on the ballot.

Lewis County Elections Supervisor Heather Boyer, at the Auditor’s Office, said her role is to forward the charges to the Lewis County Prosecutor who is tasked under the law with writing a ballot “synopsis” and forwarding that to Lewis County Superior Court.

A judge will then hold a hearing to determine if the charges are sufficient. If they are, then the parties can go ahead and begin collecting signatures for a recall, Boyer said.

The number they need is 35 percent of the number of people who voted in the last election in the fire district.

“The petition would require 274 valid signatures from voters within that fire district to place the recall and discharge of the public officers before the voters,” Boyer stated in an email today.

Boyer said its an infrequent occurrence in Lewis County. The last attempt at a recall was in 2007, regarding the mayor of Morton. And that ended when the judge didn’t find the allegations were sufficient to go forward, she said.

Commissioners Bainbridge said he’s disappointed.

“It’s unfortunate they feel that way, but it’s not a total surprise,” he said.

Bainbridge said he’d already heard from the attorney they use, that a recall effort was underway. Bainbridge is of the opinion the board’s actions have all been “legal.”

“We talk to him every week or so, to try to make sure we’re doing things right,” he said.

He notes the district’s ALS emergency medical service has been unaffected by the resignations and he’s confident neighboring districts will join them if they have to fight a fire.

“The truth is, to my knowledge, nobody’s been denied service,” he said.

The roster currently shows 13 volunteer responders, with about seven or eight of them who can realistically respond to calls, according to district secretary Linda Patraca.

One new person has turned in an application to become a volunteer since the turmoil broke out, Patraca said today.

The next regular meeting of the board of fire commissioners is Thursday.
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For background, read “Onalaska fire station condemned” from  Friday December 29, 2017, here

3 Responses to “Onalaska fire commissioners facing recall effort”

  1. steel says:

    To “Public”: These commissioners seem to think it’s alright to depend on emergency responses through the mutual aid agreements with adjacent districts. It’s not.

    If that were enough, then there would be no need for this district at all. Just let the other districts completely take over this failed district and use the tax money to do it. It certainly couldn’t be worse, and it probably could be worked out.

  2. steel says:

    This is an atrocious and unnecessary mess. These two remaining commissioners are completely responsible for it. Their job is to run an efficient, responsible department, and they have failed miserably.

    These guys, if they have any sense of public responsibility at all, have to resign for the good of the district, as they clearly cannot run it as it should be. They are not responsible, and don’t even seem to care a bit about the good of the district.

    The district now has to start anew with a good team of commissioners that can actually perform responsibly. Every day, these guys show that they are not capable.

    I’ve been a firefighter for 10 years (elsewhere) and have never, ever seen such a commissioner-induced mess, nor commissioners that seem to disrespect their staff this much.

  3. public says:

    The sad part about all of this is these are Volunteers getting out of bed day and night to come to whoever needs aid at the time of a call and they are all being treated like this by public officials who just can’t admit that they are in the wrong.
    Let’s hope that they are not the ones in need and have a crew to come administer aid at that time

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