UPDATE | Helland, Gabelein survive contentious fire district primary

Two-term incumbent Mike Helland and former three-term commissioner Gary Gabelein will face each other in November’s general election for a seat on the Island County Fire District 3 board of commissioners.

They were the top two vote-getters in this week’s contentious four-way primary for Position 3 on the board. The other candidates were firefighters Don Carscadden and Frank Mestemacher.

With most of the votes in as of Thursday afternoon, Helland has received 2,439 votes, or about 46 percent of the total. Gabelein has received 1,668 votes, more than 31 percent. Mestemacher has received 611 votes (11.5 percent), and Carscadden 609 votes (11.4 percent).

The vote was a referendum on several volatile district issues, especially regarding volunteer recruitment, retention and morale, and the elimination this year of all six part-time paid firefighter positions.

“I’ve been involved in the district for 38 years, and this is the first time three firefighters have stepped into the ring,” Gabelein said Thursday.

Carscadden said the three chose to run in an effort to knock Helland out of the race in the primary, leaving two favorable candidates in the general election. He said the three believe Helland doesn’t have enough firefighting experience to be a commissioner.

“It’s nothing personal against him,” Carscadden said Thursday. “It was a gamble. We still have a 50-50 chance.”

Helland, 53, is seeking his third consecutive six-year term on the board. He has been a South Whidbey resident for 34 years, and has been manager of the Clinton Water District for the past 17 years.

“My record is there to be examined,” Helland said Thursday. As for leading in the primary: “I just continue to be humbled by the support of the community.”

Both Carscadden and Mestemacher say they are behind Gabelein in November.

“I’m glad Gary’s going to be running,” Mestemacher said Thursday. “We stand a chance this time. Even though we’re firefighters, we’re still taxpayers watching where the funds are being spent.”

“The commission has been totally out of touch with the volunteer firefighters,” he said. “Rather than complain, I decided to step up.”

“It was a good experience,” added Mestemacher, 65, a District 3 volunteer for 14 years, the past five as station captain in Freeland. “I’ll continue to be a volunteer firefighter. I was voicing my opinion.”

Gabelein, 60, is a South Whidbey native and former district commissioner for 18 years.

Gabelein had strong showings in multiple precincts. He got 37 percent of ballots cast in the Saratoga 1 Precinct; earned 39 percent in Useless Bay 1, and battled to a 103-vote draw with Helland in Lone Lake. He also picked up 43 percent of the vote in the Saratoga 2 Precinct.

“It’s going to be an interesting race,” Gabelein said of the Nov. 3 General Election. “I still think the district needs to reinstate the paid people, and needs to show more appreciation for the volunteers and do everything it can to keep them.”

Helland takes another view.

“If there’s a morale issue, it was there before I came onboard,” he said. “Ask the volunteers. They have the best gear, responses are good, the rigs are new, the buildings are new — I don’t know what more we can do to support them.”

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