The two North Whidbey Fire and Rescue commissioner candidates expressed vastly different visions for the future of the embattled district in separate interviews.
Marv Koorn was appointed to the position in 2016 and served as fire chief before joining the board.
Koorn envisions the department staying majority volunteer-run and said he’d focus on recruitment and appreciation of its members to address the declining volunteer numbers. He said when he stepped down as fire chief, there were more than 100 volunteers; Now, there are approximately 55.
His opponent Theresa Jenkins said the district’s increased call volume warrants more career firefighters.
Jenkins is a lender at Guild Mortgage in Oak Harbor, and her significant other is a firefighter within the district as well as many of her friends. She has spent the last few years volunteering at fundraisers for the district and said she was asked to run for the position in part because of her 29 years of experience in finance.
She also thinks its time for a new perspective in the district.
“The mentality of the department needs to change,” Jenkins said.
The district has had a tumultuous past few years, with volunteers airing grievances about the board at meetings and in a joint letter to the media, expressing distrust in the commissioners and some leaving the district altogether. Former Fire Chief Mark Kirko left in June and said at the time it was in part due to an antagonistic relationship with one of the commissioners.
In April, commissioners held a special meeting in which several volunteers told board members that they did not support them nor did they feel supported. At the meeting, Firefighter Richard Hoover, who said he was speaking on behalf of other volunteers, asked Koorn not to run in the 2019 election, according to the meeting minutes.
Koorn said most of the firefighters’ concerns — which included the tight budget, poor communication, aging or malfunctioning equipment and a lack of transparency — were mostly within the responsibility of the chief and battalion chief.
He said the district is hoping to hire a new chief that will repair former and current firefighters’ trust, and hopefully attract some of those who left back into active volunteer membership. For tasks such as repairs, discipline and other personnel issues, he said the commissioners don’t want to “micromanage” the department.
“Things should come to the board, not the board go out and look for things,” Koorn said.
However, Jenkins said that from what she’d seen at meetings and heard from others in the district, Kirko had trouble addressing those needs during his time as chief. She said it seemed as if his suggestions tended to be postponed or ignored and that this seemed to be confirmed by conversations with officers and others.
“The consensus is the commissioners just don’t let (fire chiefs) do their job,” she said. “They want to control everything … it’s a constant battle just to get small daily tasks completed.”
She also thinks the district’s relationship with the public could be improved as well. She said if the district is going to evolve, it’s going to need the community’s support.
The district unsuccessfully attempted levy lid lifts in 2017 and 2008.
“Right now, the public just isn’t aware of the state of the department,” she said.
Koorn said the district is planning to begin soon an evaluation of the district’s projected needs over the next five years and determine if a levy lid lift is needed. He said particular consideration will be made toward keeping a good insurance rating, which affects the price of insurance premiums in the district.
He highlighted that the department had rehabilitated or replaced a number of vehicles during his tenure as commissioner without having to go to the voters.
“I’m proud of the fact that we’ve lived within the budget,” said Koorn.
Jenkins criticized the district’s “fix-it-when-it-breaks mentality” and said it would be a better financial investment to purchase new vehicles that will last longer rather than repairing old ones. She said her banking background would allow her to provide valuable insight while the district creates its budget and plans for the future.
“No one knows the plan,” Jenkins said. “You have to have a clear, concise strategic plan, and that’s the only way you’ll be able to make a budget.”
Koorn said his track record and knowledge of rules, safety standards and state and federal regulations are what qualifies him to continue to serve on the board.
“I think my history record speaks for itself,” he said.