Looking for answers in Washington | TheUnion.com

Looking for answers in Washington

Reading Vivian Herron’s column in The Union every Saturday, readers might get the impression that the town of Washington – nestled in a Yuba River canyon northeast of Nevada City – is a bucolic village filled with colorful, wisecracking friends.

That’s part of the story, but the drama now playing out over the Washington volunteer fire department has opened the door to a darker side of small-town life.

Some citizens, after years of concerns about the state of the fire department, gained a majority on the board of its governing organization, the Washington County Water District, and earlier this year requested an audit by the California Department of Forestry and Fire Prevention.

The audit, presented to the board on July 20, was damning. Most of the requested documents were not produced by the department, including firefighter certification, training or maintenance records, or accountability for funds. A visual inspection found antiquated vehicles, no telephones or even an office, inadequate communications gear, and medical equipment that is “marginal at best.” The list went on and on.

On July 27, Fire Chief Mervin Lee was fired for not cooperating with the audit, and now the entire department is threatening to quit at tonight’s board meeting. Also, a petition is circulating to recall the three women board members who are seeking answers.

There certainly are plenty of questions that should be answered:

• If the volunteers are fully certified, as they said after their chief was fired, why did Lee withhold the documentation from the CDF auditors?

• Regarding the other paperwork, Lee said the department was never told it was required. At best, wouldn’t this suggest major incompetence by the fire department and previous water boards? At worst, there may be criminal culpability.

• Lee said the department was aware of its own problems for years, but he blames the water board for not providing more money. Yet the county’s firefighting community told The Union Washington has had many opportunities to receive grants and better equipment, but has failed to reach out.

Now, one of the town’s favorite events, the Chicken Barbecue and Auction set for next Saturday, which raises money for the fire department, may be held hostage. Lee said last week the permits for the event are in his name, adding: “If the fire department’s still alive, we’ll try to do something.”

If the barbecue is in danger, there obviously is a deep schism in Washington. The fire department’s woes may be just the tip of the iceberg.

If cooler heads can’t prevail at tonight’s meeting, the board may want to consider dissolving the department altogether for now. When things calm down, they can start from scratch with the help of other fire departments and districts.

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