Controversial Camasi wraps up 15 years on fire board

"The answer: None.The question: How many contested elections did Sam Camasi win on his way to a 15-year career as a Bainbridge Island fire department commissioner?It’s strange, but true. Camasi, an electrical contractor, ran and lost two years before being appointed to replace Jack Schaeffer in 1984. Less than a year later, he lost to challenger Lisa Oncken in a 62 percent landslide.But less than a year after that, he was reappointed to the board when Oncken abruptly resigned. He won an unopposed election in 1993 in his bid for a fresh six-year term, but lost again attempting to stretch his service tenure to 2006 in last November’s election."

  • Saturday, January 15, 2000 12:00pm
  • News

“The answer: None.The question: How many contested elections did Sam Camasi win on his way to a 15-year career as a Bainbridge Island fire department commissioner?It’s strange, but true. Camasi, an electrical contractor, ran and lost two years before being appointed to replace Jack Schaeffer in 1984. Less than a year later, he lost to challenger Lisa Oncken in a 62 percent landslide.But less than a year after that, he was reappointed to the board when Oncken abruptly resigned. He won an unopposed election in 1993 in his bid for a fresh six-year term, but lost again attempting to stretch his service tenure to 2006 in last November’s election.His opponent in that election, state trooper Glen Tyrrell, was sworn in as Camasi’s replacement Wednesday night. That moment marked the end of the longest uninterrupted period of service, election history aside, by any Bainbridge elected official in recent years.Camasi’s detractors say he lost so many elections because he was unpopular. Camasi believes he lasted because he was unpopular for all the right reasons.Throughout his tenure, Camasi, 58, became known for emphasizing the letter of public-policy process over the spirit of rank-and-file desires within the volunteer-driven department.“If there’s one thing I tried to do consistently, it was trying to keep the big-picture issues in front of us and not let personalities get involved,” he said.His triumphs include being a key player in landing Seattle-based paramedic service to the rapidly growing island. He also served on several national fire-related boards and councils, helping devise national electrical codes that are in effect today.“I don’t know that I can name anyone with whom I’ve had any involvement in government that was more committed, more knowledgeable about the issues, that displayed more insight and inquiry into issues than Sam,” said attorney Alan Corner, who sat alongside Camasi as a fire commissioner for the last 12 years.His detractors in the department, however, claim that Camasi’s allegiance to process unfairly alienated the volunteer corps.“We had no credibility with him whatsoever,” said Jim Dow, who was recently hired as the department’s volunteer coordinator after nearly 20 years of service. “As affable as Sam was as a person, part of his philosophy was that the Firefighters’ Club was not on the organizational chart, therefore it had no status in the organization. “He never understood that it is the heart and soul of the department.”Camasi and the volunteers staked out opposing sides early. Shortly after his first appointment, he was outspoken in opposing volunteers who wanted longtime department member Gary Clough named to replace retiring chief Don Beach.Camasi preferred a hiring process that gave equal weight to outside applicants. Clough was eventually hired, despite ranking just 12th out of 15 prospective candidates, after the volunteer-supported commission candidate, Oncken, defeated Camasi in November 1985.“That was an awkward situation,” Camasi conceded. “The issue was never the individual of Gary Clough. It was one of those things where the board had violated and contradicted the process … it got misconstrued, got some people thinking I was anti-volunteer.”After Oncken quit and Camasi was reappointed in July 1986, the process-versus-personnel issue came up again when the board voted to form the executive director position. The first person to fill that job, Neil Good, was hired in what volunteers called a “backroom deal” that provided no opportunity for their input.The theme surfaced again in late 1998, when Camasi and the board – following recommendations from current executive director Ken Guy and fire chief Kirk Stickels – hired David Griffiths as the department’s training and safety officer. Overlooked was an in-house candidate of impressive but lesser credentials in paid firefighter Greg Borgen.At the heart of each issue, both sides agree, is a lack of common ground over who should influence department policy.“Somebody told me once that volunteers do two things: commanding and making quick decisions,” Camasi said. “As a legislator, we do neither. That, in itself, is disquieting to volunteers compared to the way they conduct business.“We consider their input valuable, but we have to maintain a more global perspective.”Corner agreed. “Nobody likes the generals, is really what it’s all about,” he said. “Maybe Sam didn’t always explain fully why he made the decisions he made, but I don’t think he was obligated to explain to them. He was obligated to the people of Bainbridge Island.”That, Camasi said, is what he’d like people to remember most about him. In his last significant policy statement, he fought for the right of the board to impose a two-year property tax levy for the maximum 106 percent over the previous year’s rate, as allowed by state law.He argued that while the state had voted for the tax-slashing Initiative 695, Bainbridge Island voters had overwhelmingly rejected the measure.“If I walked down the street and bumped into a Bainbridge taxpayer, and they asked me a question about why I did what I did,” Camasi said. “I’d like to think I’d have a good answer.” “

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