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THE CITY REBORN FROM THE ASHES OF AMERICA'S MOST DISASTROUS FOREST FIRE
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Town of Stephenson Hears Call For Fire Chief To Retire

Issue Date: December 20, 2018

Along with prepared statements presented during time for public comment at the Town of Stephenson Board meeting on Wednesday, Dec. 12, two members of the town's Volunteer Fire Department outlined a list of concerns with the way Fire Chief Jim Stradal is handling the department, mainly involving training, equipment, testing and other safety issues and asked for his retirement or replacement.

First to speak was Steve Marvin, who referred to a summary of complaints he and others had brought to the board when he resigned from his position as lieutenant and training officer four years ago after 14 years with the department.

Marvin provided the board with written copies of his complaints submitted to the board four years ago, and also with long list of problems firefighters cited at recent meetings. That list was finalized in August of this year.

At the conclusion of his spoken comments, Marvin expressed hope that the town board would ask Stradal to retire so the board could select a new chief, and added, "If that option is not acceptable, we would like to see the town take steps to remove the chief as we feel he is not doing what the chief of the department should be doing and is in fact setting the town up for potential costly lawsuit(s)."

"I'll ditto Steve's comments," Jon Kleuskens said when it was his turn to speak, adding that he had not spearheaded this request to the board, "but a couple of guys asked me and Steve to be spokesmen for them."

He said in addition to issues mentioned by Marvin, there were things he would like to see done, mainly joining MABAS and following SOGs. (SOGs is the acronym for Standard Operating Guidelines, and the Wisconsin state safety site declares: "The purpose of this guideline is to provide for the tracking and inventory of all members operating at an emergency incident. It is the responsibility of all fire chiefs and officers to maintain a constant awareness of the position and function of all personnel assigned to operate under their supervision.")

Kleuskens reminded the board of the long list of concerns presented to them four years ago, and added, "... nothing is getting done"sometimes we need a little change."

Marvin agreed that the Safety Committee set up four years ago has done nothing. He added, "Now again various members of the department are very unhappy with how things are being handled, and there are a lot of state laws that we are not following"Hopefully the board will take some action and make changes on the department."

He said in August members of the department had made up a new list of concerns about the department. Many of the firefighters were threatening to quit. They had met with Mike Kudick and Kevin Solway. After discussions, he said, "We feel that if we quit we're putting the town at risk"We would be risking public safety in the town, and we live here""

Another half dozen firefighters present for the meeting expressed nods of silent support while Marvin and Kleuskens were speaking. After the meeting Marvin and Kleuskens said there are 30 total members left on the department now, after some resignations. Of those 30 members, 22 are certified firefighters qualified to enter burning buildings and eight work only on traffic control. Some of the 22 certified firefighters live or work out of town and are available only part of the time. Typically only eight or nine respond to a call.

The board can take no action on items raised under public comment unless they are already on the meeting agenda, but the evening ended with a promise from Town Chair Mike Kudick and Supervisor Kevin Solway, chair of the Public Safety, Ordinance and Finance Committee, that the firefighter's concerns will be discussed at the next Public Safety Committee meeting, and at a special town board meeting if necessary.

Chief Stradal, who currently also is a supervisor on the town board, was given the position of chief when the department was organized many years ago.

Committee meetings are generally held starting at 7 p.m. on the first Wednesday of each month. Town Board meetings are scheduled for 7 p.m. on the second Wednesday of each month.

Marvin had begun his written statement with a declaration that: "Numerous members of the Town of Stephenson Fire Department feel that their safety as well as the safety of other members is being compromised and has been compromised for many years. This is due in large part by decisions made, or not being made, by the Fire Chief, Jim Stradal.

Concerns on the long, long list of complaints against Stradal included that ladder, hose and pump testing have not been done at required intervals over the years; air quality testing on the breathing air compressor has never been done, face piece fit testing has not been done in over 15 years; not all air packs in service have been tested annually like they should be; lack of buddy breathing hose on some packs that could be the difference between life and death in a Mayday situation; fires are very seldom investigated properly to determine cause, even though state statutes require that any fire causing over $500 damage be investigated; recruitment of new firefighters is lacking; refuses to join MABAS; fights against installing dry hydrants; hesitates to call for mutual aid and gets upset if others call for it without his approval; CO detectors have needed factory calibration for over a year and it is not getting done; frequency of training is not enough to cover annual requirements, and much more, many having to do with discipline, poor communication, failure to follow by-laws, favoritism, and undermining decisions made by others on the scene, even when he was not present.

The statement ended with a warning made at a recent Fire Association meeting that the state will be auditing every department in the county over the next few years, and some things on the list of concerns "directly relate to us failing that audit." Failing the state audit could result in the town not getting any more state money until they are compliant, and also could result in the town having to repay the state for years of non-compliance, depending on the severity of issues. "We were told it is not a matter of if we will be audited, but a matter of when," he added.

Marvin said the main reason Stradal has not done some of the required testing and other things comes down to unwillingness to spend money. "He has given thousands of dollars of the annual budget back to the town over the years, which ultimately reduces their budget in future years."

"He may think he's doing the town a favor by not spending the money while disregarding safety issues, but in the long run he's setting the town up for a horrendous lawsuit. God forbid, if there's a disabling injury, or worse yet a firefighter line of duty death, the town will be lucky to have any money in any of their accounts.Those in positions of authority for allowing this department to function like this for so many years could also see themselves with legal issues," Marvin added.

He concluded with recognition that the chief has had a long career in the fire service, ""but times have changed since he became chief and it seems he is not willing to change to improve the department or the safety of the firefighters, which could ultimately improve the safety of the town's citizens."

Action items during the main part of the meeting, prior to the fire department comments, included approving temporary placement of a mobile home on a lot currently without water or sanitary disposal facilities contingent on showing proof that contracts are in place for these improvements, authorizing Building Inspector Jane Meissner to create an inspection report that applies more specifically to mobile homes, granting a raise for temporary help and Recycling Center employees, and deciding how to handle dog licensing concerns brought to their attention by Canine control officer Mark Schlei and Carol Sutter, who operates the Countryside Boarding Kennel where stray dogs picked up by Schlei are taken.

All board members were present, along with Clerk Elaine Olson, Treasurer Mary Jane Kempka, Attorney Kim Coggins, Public Works Director Craig Baeten, Meissner, Schlei, several other town employees, and the fire department members.

Stradal reported the fire department had three fire calls, one meeting and one drill since the last board meeting.

Schlei reported he had to deal with one stray dog.

Meissner reported issuing seven building permits and three fire numbers during the month. She said Friday, Dec. 14 would be the last Friday until spring for people to get building permits at the town hall. Anyone needing a permit can call her office.

Baeten reported recycling is going well, and they should have a couple of bales of cardboard ready to go within the next week or two.

Sutter was concerned about a requirement that she hold stray dogs dropped off with her until the owners could show proof that they had a license.

She said people get angry when she tells them they cannot have their pet back until they get a license for it.

Schlei agreed with her suggestion that she should have papers informing them what the animal needs and where to get it, including the license, registration, ID tags and proof of rabies shot. She could then give them the papers, with say 10 days to get the license and meet the other requirements, have the person sign them, and then release the dog. The owners pay for each day the dog is kept at the kennel, and get upset that they cannot get the licenses there, when they pick up the dog.

He suggested revising the ordinance to make the fine high enough - say $160 - so they can release the dog and be sure the owners will follow through and spend the $5 to get a license.

Kempka said her records show the town gets about $300 income from dog licenses each year.

Kudick said the town only pays Carol for seven days' board if the owner does not get the animal and it goes over seven days the kennel will not get paid.

Carol said she is thinking of making the kennel a non-profit business, and added, "I keep the dogs and feed them even if I do not get paid, because I care... I won't just put a dog out on the world again!"

She also has been having a problem finding a place to go with dogs whose owner never does show up. She does take them to the animal shelter in Menominee, but now they can't be taken across the state line with out a veterinarian's certificate. She is hoping they can find a place in Marinette that will keep them until they get the needed papers. She said Marinette County Sheriff's Department officers bring stray dogs to her also, and she has the same problem with them.

Kudick agreed with the suggestion that the kennel should supply the needed licensing information and release the dog. He said it's a lot easier for Schlei to be the bad guy.

"I don't mind...I'm doing it for the dogs," Schlei agreed.

Sutter said he is the best dog catcher she's ever worked with.

Solway agreed the kennel should not be in the position it is in now, and should be allowed to release the dog, with or without a license. Coggins said by state law, $85.60 is the fine for the first violation of a municipal ordinance. Schlei felt that would be fine, "as long as it's cheaper to get the license than to pay the fine."

Kudick asked Solway if his Public Safety, Ordinance and Finance Committee could have an ordinance amendment ready for the next committee meeting, and Solway said they could. Kudick then said the kennel should go on as they have been until the next board meeting, when the new ordinance will most likely be adopted.

Moving to the next subject, Solway said he had been told by Assessor Mike Denor that they need some changes in Board of Review procedures. He had gotten sample of ordinance language from Wisconsin Towns Association and the board approved them as proposed, contingent on approval from Coggins. The changes, approved at the Dec. 5 committee meeting makes provision to allow written or telephonic testimony at the Board of Review hearing.

Solway said the Personnel Committee had recently discussed the fact that recycling personnel had not gotten a raise since 2007. They currently start at $9.76 per hour, as do the persons hired for temporary help, and there are raises scheduled only after the first, third and fourth years, so some of the employees have worked 10 or 11 years without a raise. Solway said he called the county and several towns, "and we are well below all of them."

He proposed a starting wage of $12 per hour for recycling workers, added longevity pay increases after seven and ten years in addition to the current one, two and four year raises, and added provision for a Recycling Team Leader should they decide to have one.

"Our recycling people and our temporary employees do an excellent job and should be compensated fairly," Lieuwen agreed. He said there had not been many complaints from them, "and we tend to get complacent."

The board unanimously approved the raises as proposed. The new pay schedule to take effect on Jan.1 starts recycling workers at $12 per hour, and going up by 2.5 percent a year, caps at $14.96 per hour after 10 years. A Recycling team leader would start at $15.45 and cap at $19.26. Temporary help would start at $13 and cap at $16.21.

Asked if the raise applied also to election poll workers, Olson said no, they are handled differently, but they did get a raise this year.

Meissner conveyed a request to the board from a woman who was seeking to put a used mobile home on her 10-acre property on Wood Duck Lane. The home passed the inspection without a problem. It looks good, has a whole new roof and the entire outside was redone, so the lady bought the home. However, the perc test on her property showed she needs a mound system. She has applied for that permit through the state as required, but the permit has not come through yet, and she was told they are way behind at the state level. If the lady cannot move the home she will lose it.

Lieuwen, who is in a related business agreed the wait for a state permit is awful - perhaps six to eight months. He added there are certain times of the year when you should not install a mound system.

"The lady is frantic," Meissner declared. "She has to get the home off the lot where she bought it." She won't have water until spring, and will not live in it, but if she doesn't move that home she will lose it.

Lieuwen asked if the mound system has been designed yet, and Meissner said she wasn't sure, "she was crying so hard on the phone." The lady had been told state turn around time is three months.

She asked the town to allow her to bring it in on a conditional permit, and require it to be moved if she doesn't meet the conditions.

Coggins said the town doesn't have zoning, so they cannot give a variance, but they could put conditions on the building permit. He and Lieuwen suggested she should be required to show that she has a contract in place for a well and septic and a down payment on them, and put those requirements in the permit, along with a statement that if there is no compliance by a certain date the permit is revoked and the home must be moved. Coggins said she should be required to sign a statement that she understands if the home is not in compliance by the deadline date it must be moved out of town within 30 days. Because of spring weight limits on roads, Lieuwen suggested making June 1 the compliance date. With those conditions, the board authorized issuing the permit.

Meissner asked permission from the board to start working on a new report for inspection of used mobile homes that are not 20 years old. She has been getting suggestions from other towns, and said the form should be more streamlined, "not seven pages of yea and nay."

Kudick asked if she could have the form ready for consideration at the next committee meeting, and Meissner said she could. She was given permission to go ahead.

That completed scheduled business for the meeting.

The board has scheduled a special meeting for 7 p.m. on Wednesday, Dec. 19 to name the three town representatives who will serve on the Joint Extraterritorial Zoning Committee being established with the Village of Crivitz.

At committee meetings held on Wednesday, Dec. 5 the Building and Grounds Committee agreed there will be no increase in the airport lease amount for 2019.

Lieuwen explained at the ordinance, Finance and Public Safety Committee that SXS Sports, in conjunction with Monster Sports, will be holding one of their ATU / UTV races on the High Falls Flowage near the Twin Bridge Ski Team site on March 2, 2019. They expect approximately 10,000 people. A track will be constructed the day before the race and removed the day after. They will need rescue on scene and will also need fire. They have the paperwork for the event permit and will be getting that to the Town shortly. Supervisor Solway stated that Rescue is a separate entity and will have to be contacted directly. He also stated something may need to be done at the county level. Lieuwen stated he talked with the County and if they expect 10,000 or under, there is nothing more they need to do. If town services are needed for plowing a parking area, there may be a charge back for that service.

Lieuwen further stated that a motorcycle circuit is looking at having an ice event in the same area in 2020. It would be held on the weekend after the Fish-o-Rama. More details will follow on this in the future.


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