City ousts fire chief

Mayor declines to give reason behind change of leader

— The city is in the market for a new fire chief in the wake of Gordon Hennigs’ termination last week.

Hennigs, who has been chief for 17 years, said he was terminated Dec. 10 by Mayor Michael Blake.

“I was not given a reason,” he said. “It came out of the blue.”

Blake, who is leaving office Dec. 31, declined to say why Hennigs is being replaced.

“He is no longer an employee” of the city, he said. “I’d love to be able to talk, but I can’t.”

No investigations are under way, Blake said. Department heads, including the fire chief, serve at the pleasure of the mayor.

Hennigs said he was terminated after a meeting with Blake. He is looking into his legal options.

He continues to serve as elected chief for the Okanogan Volunteer Fire Department Association and is one of three chiefs in Fire District No. 3. The district encompasses the rural areas around Okanogan and Omak, plus the Malott area.

The other chiefs are Kevin Bowling, for Omak, and Matt Rawson, for Malott.

Bowling said to his knowledge, nothing is changing for the district.

Fire district commissioners Dave Goetz and Dave Williams, contacted separately, said for now the relationship between the city and the district will remain the same. Commission Chairman Mike Cusick could not be reached for comment.

The commission met last Tuesday night, but commissioners learned of Hennigs’ firing the next day.

“It caught us off guard,” Goetz said.

“This really throws a monkey wrench in the middle of a lot of things,” Williams said.

The district has received no resignation from Hennigs and has “no legal basis for termination” at this point, Williams said. The commission will have to determine if Hennigs will remain an eligible firefighter for the city, since that is a requirement for being district chief.

If he does continue as a district chief, logistics will have to be worked out since Hennigs no longer has access to the fire hall or the chief’s vehicle. Both are owned by the city.

The district houses its Okanogan-area equipment in the city’s hall. The two crews are made up of the same personnel.

Hennigs said he can respond to district calls and participate in district practice sessions, but confirmed that otherwise he has no access to the hall.

Until a new chief is hired, the city will rely on the two assistant chiefs to take charge on city calls, Blake said. Scott Duncan is the first assistant chief and Justin Workman is the second assistant chief.

The duty of hiring a new chief will fall to the incoming mayor, Jon Culp, who ran unopposed in November after Blake chose not to seek re-election.

Culp said he hadn’t yet sat down with Blake to discuss the situation, but wants to focus on moving forward.

He said the council may opt to reduce the position from full-time to part-time, given budgetary concerns. Once a budget is in place – that council action was expected Tuesday evening – he plans to begin formulating a job description and time line.

“I don’t intend to be blind-sided on January first,” Culp said. “As soon as we have a budget, we will start working” on filling the position.

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