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Bainbridge fire board races center on staffing, levy funding
It was the first, and perhaps only, time they were all in the same room together. Candidates for the island’s board of fire commissioners recently gathered for a candidate forum to say why voters should choose them for a position with the Bainbridge Island Fire Department.
The forum on Thursday, June 27 served to familiarize the island community with the candidates and the issues facing the department.
Three issues were of chief concern for the candidates; funding, staffing, and how to communicate the need of both to voters.
Staffing the department, which relies heavily on volunteers, is a challenge. But staff, and volunteers, need financial support, the candidates said.
“We have a volunteer program that has improved dramatically, compared to 10 or five years ago,” said YongSuk Cho, a candidate for Position 2. “As a commissioner you need to think about funding that program more.”
David H. Lynch, also running for a six-year term in Position 2, agreed.
“One issue is trying to keep volunteers and career people on the island,” Lynch said. “The island is much more expensive to live on than, say, Poulsbo. First responders are going to have difficulty getting here if the Agate Pass Bridge is not available.”
Lynch brought the matter back to the need for public communication, so voters can provide the funding the department will need.
“We have to say what kind of levies we can go to the voting public for,” Lynch said.
“How do we present that to the public and help them understand what kind of staffing is necessary?” Lynch asked, noting that it’s the commission’s responsibility to make the case.
Lynch said that inflation often outpaces the amount of funding coming into the department, and that the EMT levy provides less money than other sources of income. The majority of calls the fire department responds to are also medical-related.
Position 2 attracted considerable attention during the forum. Three candidates — Lynch, Cho and Meghan McKnight — are vying for the post. The three-way race has prompted a Primary Election battle, with just two advancing from August to the November ballot.
McKnight comes fresh from her duties at a code compliance officer for the city of Bainbridge Island, where she worked closely with the fire department, handling regulations related to fire codes.
Lynch is CEO of ApoVax, Inc. a biotech company based in Kentucky. He said he brings experience in management and communication with the public.
Cho has been a volunteer firefighter on Bainbridge Island since 1991. He has spent 14 years as a firefighter and EMT with the Seattle Fire Department. He hopes to bring his experience in the field, and intimate knowledge of the department, to the board.
One question from the audience drew particular attention from the candidates. Three of the candidates, one in each race, have ties to the fire department, and they were asked if it posed a conflict of interest.
Holly vanSchaick, a Skagit County paramedic and member of the International Association of Fire Fighters union, said she is not a member of the island’s bargaining unit and therefore has no conflict of interest.
Bill Ruddick’s son is employed as a firefighter in the department. Ruddick said that he was not aware of any issues that could cause concern.
Cho is a 23-year member of the island’s volunteer force. He said he did not believe it posed any conflicts.
If any arise, Cho said he would step aside.
“A large part of the department are my friends,” he added. “There are union issues. I’m going to lean more toward their safety, which means more staffing.”
The remaining candidates used the forum to introduce themselves and stress why they would make good commissioners.
Eileen McSherry, a candidate for Position 4, noted her experience working in the safety field as a human resources professional for North Kitsap Fire & Rescue.
Ruddick, her opponent, noted his background in the business realm.
“I’ve run businesses that do up to $275 million in business,” Ruddick said.
“Whether it’s a corporation (or a fire department), these things are all the same,” he said. “We have to look at the internal things going on in an organization, the external things, and the financial situation.”
Teri Dettmer, a retired lawyer, faces vanSchaick in the race for Position 5.
For her part, vanSchaick said that she works a 48 hour work week — all 48 hours straight — leaving her plenty of time to devote to board work.
She went through basic training on Bainbridge Island in 2009 before moving on in her career. vanSchaick said that she believes she can use her experience in other districts to improve Bainbridge’s fire department.
Dettmer said she brings years of experience managing a law firm that handled many health care cases, and added that most calls on the island deal with health-related emergencies.
“I think it is important that commissioners have management experience because that is their job, management,” Dettmer said.