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Both candidates say experience reigns supreme in Bainbridge Position 5 fire board race
Experience — but exactly what type — has become a prime issue in the race for the Position 5 seat on the board of commissioners for the Bainbridge Island Fire Department.
Theresa “Teri” Dettmer, a retired attorney who has previously sought an appointed position on the fire commission, is running against Holly vanSchaick, a former Bainbridge EMT who currently works as a full-time paramedic in Skagit County.
This November election marks a major turning point for the Bainbridge department, as four of five seats on the fire board are on the ballot.
Three of those four positions, a majority, are contested seats with no incumbent with a hat in the ring.
And in all three races, the question of conflicts of interest has arisen. Three candidates have close ties to the firefighting profession, through their everyday lives or family ties.
That’s led their opponents to underscore what they see as a more unattached and unbiased view of decisions that face the department.
Those on the other side, however, have countered that their time and exposure with the rank-and-file will help them bring a much needed insider’s perspective to the board.
In the Position 5 race, vanSchaick said she is answering her family’s call of service in seeking the seat.
She recalled how her grandmother instilled in her the notion of the greater good, and an individual’s responsibility in shouldering the load.
“I grew up in a family where civic participation was what we learned — early on,” she said.
Her grandmother, a 30-year schoolteacher, ran for the state assembly in her home state back east. She gave the incumbent “a run for his money,” vanSchaick said, but came up short in the end.
Didn’t matter; the lesson wasn’t lost. Her grandfather was the same way, volunteering for the local historical society, joining in other community efforts.
“They instilled that in me from a very early age — that it is valuable to be part of your community,” she said.
Her grandmother’s philosophy in life was simple. Fill a void.
“And if that void was picking up a piece of trash off the ground as you walk by it, then that’s the void at that moment. So do it.”
vanSchaick, 36, came to Bainbridge from Hawaii in 2006.
At age 30, and the birth of her fourth child, she went back to school to study emergency medicine. She later became a volunteer on Bainbridge.
She was hooked, she said, on her first call as an EMT.
“I just fell in love with it,” she said.
Firefighters academy, and a short stint with the Sunnyside Fire Department in Yakima County after graduation, followed.
The big difference in this race can be boiled down to a word, she said.
“Experience: I think that’s really what it comes down to,” she said.
Those in the ranks see changes unfolding. It’s a needed perspective, she said.
“We have our finger on the pulse of the industry. Especially right now, we are at a point where we have these changes brewing in how medicine is delivered.
“Over 80 percent of the calls that we run are medical,” she said.
Multiple pilot programs are coming through Medicare, she said, that involve emergency medicine.
Experiments to stem the flow of emergency room visits are being explored, she said, and it’s important to have someone on the board who is seeing that unfold firsthand.
Though vanSchaick has much praise for the Bainbridge Island Fire department, she said there is room for improvement.
“I think the department is doing a good job. The department deserves a lot of credit for being able to provide the service they’ve provided for less money than the rest of the county has,” she said, adding that every other department in the county is levying at the maximum amount or above.
She also noted that while she is a member of the firefighters union, she said it won’t affect her service on the board.
“I don’t see that as a conflict. I don’t have any personal, close friends who work for this department.
“I think the union has only done good things for my industry,” she said, and added that her union and non-union working experience will be a plus for the board.
“I feel like what I can bring to the table is an understanding of both sides, and therefore, the ability to negotiate,” vanSchaick said.
Dettmer, 61, doesn’t argue that experience is key in this race.
Instead, she has a view of the medical field that is unmatched by her opponent.
“I practiced law for 25 years and most of it was in representing doctors and hospitals in various matters,” Dettmer said.
“I have some experience with not only law, of course, but with medical models — what works and what doesn’t.”
Dettmer also noted her experience at the management level, as a law firm partner or managing complex legal cases.
“I think that would be some useful experience for the fire department, especially with the kinds of changing, different medical models that may be coming down,” she said.
Major differences between the candidates are elusive to spot.
Both want the volunteer ranks supported, and Dettmer is especially quick to press upon the needs of the community in the delivery of healthcare services, the ability of taxpayers to fund services, and the resource needs of the personnel in the department that are necessary to maintain high morale.
That said, Dettmer is also one to raise the insider-outsider issue that has cocooned this season of fire board races.
“I am concerned that someone who is a firefighter or who has worked in that capacity ... their view is going to be somewhat skewed in one direction,” Dettmer said.
While not a practicing attorney any more, Dettmer said her skills honed in the legal field would still prove valuable to the Bainbridge fire board, even when there’s nothing to argue about.
Actually, it means getting the job done.
“I think practicing law requires you to develop the ability to work collaboratively with people whose opinions differ for your own,” she said. “It requires you to make hard decisions about competing needs.”
“It gives you the ability to negotiate effectively and to communicate,” she added. “And also communicate with people who disagree with you, as well as those who agree with you.”
Dettmer said voters can rely on her to make sure taxpayers’ money is properly spent.
There are pockets on the island that are comparatively underserved than others, she said. A push to strengthen the volunteer ranks may help.
There’s also the question of staffing at the Phelps Road station, and how the money will be spent on a potential property tax levy increase measure that looks likely for the ballot early next year.
“I think it’s important that we get that station staffed,” she said. “It hurts the whole island to not have it staffed.
“But I’m not sure that a 14-cent levy is necessary,” Dettmer added.
Instead, the board should first scrutinize the budget to see if funds can be shifted, and also consider other staffing models.
That’s work that should be done before the proposal is put in front of voters, Dettmer said.
Theresa (Teri) Dettmer
Occupation: Retired attorney
Previously held elected position: None.
Education: Bachelor of Science in Political Science, Arizona State University; Juris Doctor with high distinction, University of Arizona
Community service: Frequent volunteer at her children’s school and sports activities.
Fun fact: She is currently training for her first triathalon.
Occupation: Paramedic for Central Skagit Medic One
Previously held elected position: None.
Education: Tacoma Community College Paramedic Program
Community service: Bainbridge Island Ambulance Association 2007-present, Bainbridge Island Fire Department 2009-2010
Fun fact: Bravest thing I have ever done: Summer of 2012, I took my four children (ages 14, 12, 10 and 7 at that time) on a 7,500-mile (round trip) road trip to my grandparent’s farm in Schenectady, N.Y. Most amazing thing about the trip? No backseat bickering the whole time. Thanks to a game we made up at the get-go, it was a fun and peaceful journey!