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October 29, 2013
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Civil grand jury to investigate Penn Valley Fire

The brewing dispute in the Penn Valley Fire Protection District escalated this week, as the Nevada County civil grand jury has launched an investigation.

Investigators with the grand jury requested documents pertaining to training records, certifications of paid personnel, a policy and procedure manual and the district’s personnel code, Penn Valley Fire Office Manager Debbie Hughes confirmed Tuesday.

“Well, those are the essential things,” said Bill Gassaway, who has stoked the controversy in the modest, historically pastoral community. “They’ll find out a whole bunch of lackadaisies there.”

Gassaway attended the last regular meeting of the Penn Valley Fire Protection District and hurled a slew of accusations against the five-person board of directors and Fire Chief Gene Vander Plaats, including the chief received enormous raises during his tenure, lacks critical certifications to run an incident command and decimated the volunteer force during his time at the helm of the district.

Vander Plaats and Chairman Kurt Grundel refuted all those allegations both during the meeting and in follow-up interviews.

Vander Plaats said he has a wealth of experience in the fire service, including several classes he has completed over the course of his career, adding he was hired to be perform an administrative duty with the district. Grundel said there are no state or federal certifications required to run an incident command.

State regulations and not management techniques force volunteers to have as many training hours as paid firefighters, Vander Plaats said. Such mandates are more responsible for the depletion of the volunteer forces. Grundel said Vander Plaats’ raises were not egregious, were in line with other members of the fire district, including rank and file firefighters, and he was only given a 1 percent raise in 2013.

Vander Plaats was paid $81,747 in 2005 and $107,293 in 2012, a 31 percent increase, according to documents provided by the district. From a period of 2004 to 2012, Battalion Chief Don Wagner received a 52 percent increase from $54,287 to $82,766, and Hughes’ wages were raised 73 percent from $31,856 to $55,010.

Gassaway continues to assert Vander Plaats lacks necessary certifications to run incident commands at car accidents and other occurrences where a potential hazardous material scenario could unfold. He cites a fact sheet distributed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency that states “all federal, state, local tribal, private sector and nongovernmental personnel should take (a National Incident Management System Incident Command System class).”

“Things are going to be popping down here real fast,” Gassaway said of the impending grand jury investigation.

Grundel said he was not aware of the grand jury’s request for documents but said he is not fretting.

“I am confident everything will be up to date,” he said. “I am quite proud of our books.”

Public agencies are often investigated by the civil grand jury, particularly at the urging of a disgruntled citizen, and then nothing comes of it, Grundel said.

To contact Staff Writer Matthew Renda, email mrenda@theunion.com or call 530-477-4239.


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The Union Updated Nov 5, 2013 05:36PM Published Oct 31, 2013 06:34PM Copyright 2013 The Union. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.