Outcome of the Aug. 1 primary election may shape the future of North Whidbey Fire and Rescue.
Four volunteer firefighters are running for one of the two seats on the board. It’s the most contested seat in all of Island County; the candidates will be whittled down to two in the primary.
Voters in the large district, which covers North Whidbey excluding the city of Oak Harbor, will also vote on a proposed 35-cent levy lift.
The biggest issue facing the candidates, and the district as a whole, is whether the department in the future should have a greater dependence on career firefighters, as opposed to volunteer firefighters. Some people in the district are critical of Fire Chief Mike Brown because they feel he wants a department dominated by career firefighters.
Another question that divides the candidates is whether they support the levy lift proposed by the current board.
The candidates offer a range of opinions.
Bruce Carman was a fire commissioner for 20 years until he resigned last fall because of a potential conflict of interest with his granddaughter serving as a volunteer firefighter.
Marv Koorn, former fire chief, was appointed to the position; Koorn is running unopposed for the position in November.
Carman said he decided to come back after his granddaughter got a job elsewhere. He said it didn’t seem right to run against Koorn after giving up the seat to him, so he filed for the position currently filled by Larry Wall.
“There was already three filed for the position,” he said. “I thought, why not make it four to be more interesting.”
Carman approves of the direction of the district and supports the levy lift. He said an increase in career staff will be necessary and inevitable.
The call volumes have increased to a level where “asking volunteers to handle is really pushing the envelope,” he said.
He said the commissioners have been extremely responsible with tax dollars over the years, but that expenses have increased beyond the 1 percent property-tax increase allowed each year.
On the other side, T.J. Lamont, also a former fire commissioner, is opposed to the levy lid lift and to an increase in career firefighters.
Lamont said he believes that the chief has been spending too much of the district’s reserves.
As an example of what he calls excessive spending, Lamont points to a $100,000 rescue boat.
Lamont said he believes the chief pushed some experienced volunteers out by requiring everyone to be certified as “firefighter 1.” He said experienced firefighters should have been “grandfathered in.”
Newcomer to politics is Gerald Smith, a firefighter with the Navy.
Smith said he was asked to run by fellow volunteers with the department who are concerned about the management and direction of the district.
Like Lamont, he doesn’t want to see a move toward a career staff.
Smith said he’s against Brown’s proposal for a residency program, which he said is too expensive and hasn’t worked in other jurisdictions.
Smith also didn’t like the “firefighter 1” certification requirement.
Smith said all firefighters on the island are trained to the standard or above in the island’s fire academy. They shouldn’t be forced to take the state test unnecessarily, he said.
Smith said he has mixed feelings but will likely support the levy lift as long as it’s spent on capital needs and not additional staffing.
The district has aging equipment that need to be replaced and crumbling stations that need to be repaired, Smith said.
“I hope to bring some youth to the board and give them a whole different perspective,” he said.