The final four: Candidates line up for vacant seat on fire board

The pool of applicants isn’t as deep as a week ago, but Bainbridge Island Fire Commissioners will still face a tough choice in picking a new board member.

Commissioners met last week to interview four candidates for a vacant seat on the board: Teri Dettmer, Dan Morrow, Meghan McKnight and Paul Topper. Three candidates — William Biscomb, James Lagdon and Greg Millerd — removed themselves from consideration before the start of the commissioners’ meeting.

Even so, fire department officials were excited about the number of volunteers who stepped forward to serve.

“It’s a pretty cool turnout for seven people to apply for a position,” said Fire Commissioner Glen Tyrrell.

“But four is still a strong showing,” he said.

“It’s very exciting to see this many candidates. It’s very encouraging,” added Fire Commissioner Paul Bang-Knudsen.

Candidates for the vacant seat were given 10 minutes each to talk about their view of the role of a fire commissioner and their thoughts on the department’s priorities, but most kept their comments concise.

The aspirants stuck to similar themes, such as making sure firefighters have the resources and training they need to do their job, engaging the community, strengthening partnerships with other agencies and being vigilant on the use of taxpayers dollars.

Detmer, a 17-year Bainbridge Island resident and former attorney, pledged to be a strong advocate for the department.

“I think probably the number-one role of a commissioner would be to make sure that the department has all of the resources it needs to do its job,” Dettmer said.

Officials must be capable stewards of the public trust and resources they are given, she said.

“I think we all recognize that things are changing. The demographics on the island are changing. Families’ resources are changing. And there are less taxpayer dollars,” Detmer said.

Coordination and collaboration with other departments is crucial. And she also stressed the importance of the volunteer firefighters, who provide not only service but a strong community connection.

“I think it makes for a vital fire department to have a good, strong volunteer firefighter staff.”

Dettmer also noted her experience in employment law and her background as a medical malpractice attorney. She said she had much experience in settling disputes during her 25-year career.

“I’m a strong believer in the chief making personnel decisions for his department,” she said. “But I think there are times when it’s important for the commission to assist in that regard.

“I’ve learned that very careful study and caution ahead of time can avert some disastrous outcomes,” Dettmer added.

Morrow said he was initially hung up when he thought about the question of a commissioner’s role.

“It’s phrased wrong. It’s not about what I view is the role of the commissioner; it’s what the citizens of Bainbridge Island view that role to be,” Morrow said.

The answer is further defined in the commissioner’s handbook and state law, he added.

Morrow, a 26-year resident of the island, is a former equity trader and research analyst who joined the department as a firefighter/EMT in 2010. A severe back injury, however, took him out of the ranks.

He said his professional experience would serve the department well if he was appointed, and noted that the department’s financial matters were a priority.

“I’m open-minded to multiple viewpoints, and approachable to talk to; able to gather all available information and filter it down to kind of the most critical nuggets. And then, from that, able to build big picture policies and procedures.”

“I’m service-minded yet fiscally conservative,” Morrow added.

“Number one is fiscal responsibility within the department. That’s a real duty we have to the citizens of the island,” he said. “Another one would be preventing unnecessary or repetitive requests of taxpayers for more money.”

McKnight was also no stranger to public service; she currently works for the city of Bainbridge Island.

“I am familiar with the hot seat; I am the code enforcement officer for the city,” McKnight told commissioners.

A lifelong resident of Bainbridge, she said her role as a commissioner would be to provide the fire department with direction, “and to ensure that the budget is there to provide for you staff and make sure that they can do their jobs.”

She praised the department’s work in recent years, especially its emphasis on public outreach.

“I didn’t really come in with a grand, master plan,” she said.

“I’ll help out where I can. Obviously, I’ve dedicated my career to public service,” McKnight added.

Topper, the last to talk, said he couldn’t match the other candidates’ time on the island.

“I feel like a rookie,” he said, noting his relatively recent retirement to the island.

Topper comes with a 35-year career in various business roles; purchasing, aviation and the insurance industry.

“My interest in this is really community service again,” he said.

The new commissioner will join a department that boasts a strong management team and capable employees, he said.

That said, resources must be managed properly.

“We simply can’t afford to hire all the personnel that we need to staff three stations 24/7,” Topper explained.

Topper, too, noted that commissioners must help keep the department on strong financial footing.

“Property taxes are critical and we have to ethically manage that money,” he said.

“I think it’s been done wonderfully over the years,” Topper added.

Commissioners talked about the candidates in a closed-door executive session following the interviews, and expect to make a decision next week.

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