Fire district, port candidates discuss the issues at Freeland forum

Six candidates for seats on the Island County Fire District 3 and Port of South Whidbey commissions squared off at a voters' forum in Freeland Thursday night.

Fire district Position 3 incumbent Mike Helland and candidates Don Carscadden and Frank Mestemacher took questions and emphasized their differences at the forum sponsored by the League of Women Voters of South Whidbey Island at Trinity Lutheran Church.

Fire district candidate Gary Gabelein was out of town on family business, but moderator Barbara Seitle of the League read his prepared statement to the 50 or so people in attendance.

The three candidates for the Port of South Whidbey commission also outlined their positions, all stressing economic development. Dean Enell, Herb Helsel and Chris Jerome are seeking the seat soon to be vacated by port commissioner Rolf Seitle.

The top two candidates in each race in the Tuesday, Aug. 18 primary election will face each other in the Nov. 3 general election. Each commission has three members who serve six-year terms.

The fire district covers about 66 miles from the South End of the island north to a mile beyond Honeymoon Bay Road. It's six stations serve about 16,000 full and part-time residents.

The volunteer-based district has six full-time employees, about 100 volunteers and a budget of about $1.8 million.

Fire commission candidates differed widely on several issues, including building priorities, morale, equipment and the recruitment and retention of volunteers.

Helland, 53, of Clinton, a South Whidbey resident for 34 years, has been a volunteer firefighter in the district, and has been a member of the board of commissioners for the past 12 years. He has also been the manager of the Clinton Water District for 17 years.

Helland said the fire district commission has provided top-notch volunteer training and the best possible facilities and equipment while keeping the tax rate at 51 cents per $1,000 of assessed valuation, among the lowest in the state.

"It's difficult to manage a volunteer system, but we've delivered the service," Helland said. "It's not perfect, but I stand on my record."

Carscadden, 61, owner of Island Crane Services in Freeland, has been a South Whidbey resident since 1996. He has 34 years of fire service experience in the Puget Sound area, the past 10 as a District 3 volunteer

He disagreed sharply with the path the current commission has taken, saying the elimination of six part-time paid firefighter positions and the high turnover rate in volunteers "has morale at an all-time low."

Carscadden said response times have suffered because of the loss of the the part-time day crew, and that commissioners should concentrate less on "fancy" facilities such as a new administration and training facility being discussed for Bayview, and more on the needs of the volunteers.

"Complacency is not what we want," he said. "I want us to get back to where we used to be."

Mestemacher, 65, of Freeland, a woodworking instructor at Seattle Central Community College, has been a District 3 volunteer for 14 years, five years as station captain at Freeland.

He agreed that more emphasis should be placed on the recruitment and retention of volunteers, and on a central training facility. He also agreed with Carscadden that the paid day force should be reinstated, and that vehicles should be used more efficiently when responding to calls.

And he emphasized the need for community participation.

"People need to get involved," he said. "It's your tax dollars that are paying for all this."

Gabelein, 60, of Clinton, who was a commissioner of the district for 18 years before returning to the volunteer firefighter force, hopes to rejoin the board.

A South Whidbey native, Gabelein spent 28 years with the Washington State Ferries as a captain, and 37 years with the fire district.

He said his health is telling him its time to give up active fire service, but he wants to remain with the district.

In his statement, Gabelein also emphasized the need for a central training facility, and for the bolstering of the volunteer force.

Meanwhile, all three port commission candidates stressed the need to focus on economic development. They also endorsed current

redevelopment plans for the Langley Marina, the port's major component, and for concentrating on the development of tourism.

Enell, 61, of Langley, a South Whidbey resident for 20 years who has been involved in a number of progressive causes, said the port should provide support for start-ups and other economic activity that would bring more people to the island, and keep those already here from having to commute.

Helsel, 72, a Langley merchant, has lived on Whidbey for 12 years. He also stressed the need to develop the marina so it's self-sustaining and friendly to tourists and new business, but he said emphasis in the meantime should be focused on businesses already here.

Jerome, 54, a 12-year resident of the island, also pressed the need to encourage new high-tech businesses on the island. He said his experience in raising money for and running his own business would be an asset to the port commission.

Jerome appeared to sum up the positions of all three port candidates.

"Economic development is critical," he said. "We need to create an environment in which business people can succeed."

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