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Crunch time arrives for three-way race for fire commissioner

For the first time in recent memory, there’s a three-way race for a commissioner’s seat for the board of the Bainbridge Island Fire Department.

The result is three starkly different candidates for Position 2, and each admitted it was something of a surprise that Bainbridge voters face such a bounty of choices on the ballot.

“I’m shocked and thrilled. I think it’s great,” said Meghan McKnight, who is squaring off against David H. Lynch and YongSuk Cho for the post.

Lynch noted that four seats on the five-member board are on the ballot this year, and three of the races are contested.

Come January, a new majority will take over the board of fire commissioners.

“That’s a heck of a turnover,” Lynch said.

The big issues so far have come down to taxes and the proper role of a fire commissioner. And with two candidates coming from the ranks of Bainbridge firefighters, and another candidate being the father of a Bainbridge firefighter, there’s been an issue of whether some of the candidates in the races may face a conflict of interest in serving.

Bainbridge voters will pick two candidates in next week’s Primary Election to advance to November’s General Election.

YongSuk Cho

Cho, 43, knows the Bainbridge Island Fire Department from the inside out.

He has worked as a volunteer firefighter and Emer-gency Medical Tech-nician (EMT) on Bainbridge for 22 years and as a career firefighter/EMT for the Seattle Fire Department for 14 years.

He has also served eight years at the Federal Emergency Management Agency as a part of a Disaster Medical Assistance Team.

He has also offered to serve in the past as a commissioner; he applied for an appointed position on the board about six or so years ago but was not chosen.

One reason for running for the seat was clear, Cho said: “Someone had to from within the rank of firefighters.”

The board needs a voice from inside, he explained.

“The citizens of Bainbridge Island don’t usually care about what’s going on in a fire station, as long as people show up. That’s the reality of it,” he said.

“Who actually really cares about what’s going on are the people who are within. They know what’s working and what’s not,” Cho said.

“I think it’s really important to have that voice from the rank. I think that’s what’s been missing over the years.”

Cho recalled his history as one of the most active volunteers. He spent nine years in the department’s resident program, with three years at each station.

That changed when he married and had children, he said.

There have been many changes over the past two decades in the department, he added.

“Some are good, some are not so good,” Cho said.

He said he felt he could make a better contribution to the department as a commissioner, rather than a responder.

“Although, if the other commissioners approve, I’d rather stay as a responder as well,” he added.

That would take an unanimous board vote, he acknowledged.

“It’s not going to be easy, there sure are pro’s and con’s about a commissioner being a responder. From a citizen’s perspective, one more person showing up at your doorstep is a lot better than not,” he said.

Cho’s main issue has been building up the department’s volunteer ranks.

He said 70 to 80 percent of volunteers drop out because of training requirements.

“It’s kind of a shame,” he said.

Cho also said he’s been an outspoken critic in the past, and said he would be a careful steward of taxpayer dollars.

One example was the department’s purchase years ago of a ladder truck.

“I was totally against it,” he said.

“It looks good. It’s impressive. At the time, I thought we should hire more people with that same amount of money,” Cho said.

He estimated they could have hired four more people for the amount it cost to purchase the ladder truck.

“The citizens would have been much better served with a few more people than a ladder truck,” he said. “That’s been used more in parades than actual incidents.”

Cho also questioned the department’s priorities, including the resources that have been devoted to special operations.

It’s not worth the cost considering the number of incidents the department actually responds to, he said.

“We do have dog rescues,” he added. “I hate to say it, but let the dog die.”

“For the size of the department that Bainbridge has, we should not have gotten into special ops,” he said. “It’s great to have it. Once we have it ... it’s going to be decades paying out for that training.”

He noted that at the recent candidates forum, other candidates sounded willing to raise taxes to pay for fire department services.

“I am definitely hesitant about that,” he said. “I’m going to ask the guys to do more.”

David H. Lynch

Lynch, 62, is CEO of ApoVax, Inc. a biotech company based in Kentucky.

A 25-year island resident, he has also served on the city’s Harbor Commission.

Lynch also has a bit of insider’s knowledge about the fire department.

He recalled his friendship with the department’s former business administrator, the late Rich Richmire and their time together as Richmire was being treated for cancer.

“We spent a lot of time on the ferry going back and fourth, and in waiting rooms, so there was a lot of opportunity to talk about what’s going on in the fire department.”

They talked about things that were going well, and things that could be improved, he said.

The board needs to change its focus, Lynch said, and not get into the habit of micromanaging the department’s chiefs.

“Some of my background — in a lot of different areas, I think — prepared me for being able to take on the role. I think the commissioners right now are involved in the weeds too much,” Lynch said.

“The commission needs to act like a board of directors, and be concerned with the bigger picture rather than approving somebody that’s being sent to training some place, and how much money was spent on the credit card for office supplies,” he said.

It’s a mistake for the board to get into the minutia of how to run things, he said.

“The commission shouldn’t be in the weeds. That’s what we have a chief, captains and lieutenants for,” he said.

The department’s new strategic plan will be adopted before the new board takes over.

How to fund the strategic plan will come back to the voters, he noted.

“Let’s face it: We’ve been in tough economic times. Nobody wants their taxes to go up,” Lynch said.

Still, he noted how he has always voted to support schools and public safety.

“Having said that, you can’t just throw money at a problem. It’s got to be well-managed,” Lynch said. “And having been to a number of the fire commission meetings, I think there could be some improvements in the way the commission functions.”

The current board has had some very vocal discussions and disagreements on how things should work, he noted.

“I think bringing that level of passion can be kind of destructive. I think the commission needs to work as a better team than it has in the past,” he said.

“You can disagree with how the vote is going to come out, but once the decisions have been made, you have to be on board. You have to be a team player in terms of moving forward,” Lynch said.

Lynch has been one of the candidates who has raised the issue of potential conflicts of interest.

He noted that one of his opponents, Cho, has been involved with the Bainbridge department for a long time.

“He is really well-respected by other members of the department and his work has really been appreciated,” Lynch said.

Lynch also recalled Cho’s vow to focus on volunteers.

“I think that brings with it a bit of a conflict of interest. This is what his priority is because that’s where he’s been,” Lynch said.

The Position 5 race also has a firefighter in the race, he added.

“Again, I think that brings a narrower point of view. And having been involved in a number of different companies, sometimes the best business advice you get are not from people who know everything about the inner workings of the business. You have to know a much larger view of what business is, especially in terms of financial considerations.”

Meghan McKnight

McKnight has also raised the conflict of interest issue, and said that her knowledge of the department’s workings has come from a different place — her previous job as a code enforcement officer for the city of Bainbridge Island. She held five or so different positions during her 13 years with the city, including jobs in the planning division and the finance department. McKnight currently works for the city of SeaTac as its code compliance program coordinator.

Her reason for running was simple: community service.

“I obviously believe in public service and I felt like I had some information and experience with the fire department and district that would be beneficial in a commissioner’s role,” she said. “I decided I had the time and didn’t have any conflicts of interest.”

“I really love being able to serve the Bainbridge Island community. I wanted to continue doing that even though I left my role at the city,” McKnight said.

McKnight, 33, has contemplated serving as a fire commissioner before.

She sought an appointed position last year after Susan Cohen’s resignation left a vacancy on the five-member board. The board selected Dan Morrow for the post, the only incumbent on November’s ballot and the only unopposed candidate in this year’s fire commissioner races.

McKnight said the Bainbridge fire department has made great strides in improving communications with islanders. It’s something that she hopes to build upon.

“I see the commissioner’s role as becoming a lot more focused on public outreach in the community,” she said.

With the department’s strategic plan expected to be approved and adopted by the time the new commissioners are seated after the election, McKnight said it will be vital for fire department officials to continue its educational efforts with residents.

The prospects for a levy in 2014 are another reason for continuing outreach into the community, she said, and keeping the department in the public eye.

“I think that communications is going to play a key role in that, that the public is aware of what the fire department currently does, and what it is that the strategic plan is really trying to accomplish,” she said.

Though there are equipment replacement needs and staffing levels to consider, McKnight said she did not expect the department to ask voters for an overly ambitious levy.

“I think maintaining our current standards is really what you’re looking at with any upcoming levy,” she said.

McKnight said the department has done a good job of partnering with other agencies, and she was encouraged by recent talk about the prospect of a facility that could be jointly used by Bainbridge firefighters and the Bainbridge Island Police Department.

The idea has a lot of merit, she said. “I think it’s great.”

“I think there is a lot of coordination that goes on between the police department and fire department anyway right now,” she added, recalling how the island’s emergency operations center was moved from city hall to the department’s headquarters station on Madison Avenue.

“We’re a small town and that would really make sense to have a lot of those services shared,” she said.

Co-locating services may also create the potential for sharing on administrative costs, as well, McKnight said.

McKnight said her experience working in government, and her exposure to the charge that public funds be managed efficiently and openly, would be great assets to the board.

She also said the role of a commissioner is clearly defined.

“The commission’s role is to provide that policy guidance, and finding the funding to go along with that, and really aligning those two expectations as much as possible,” McKnight said.

Position 2 on the board of fire commissioners is a nonpartisan office that carries a six-year term. The Primary Election is Tuesday, Aug. 6, and the two candidates with the most votes will advance to the November election.

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