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UPDATE | Helland on the way to another term on fire district commission

Two-term incumbent Mike Helland is handily defeating former three-term commissioner Gary Gabelein in the race for another six-year term on the Island County Fire District 3 board of commissioners.

In first returns, Helland was leading with nearly 68 percent of the vote, with 2,637 votes, to Gabelein's 32 percent, or 1,248 votes.

Helland, 53, of Clinton, and Gabelein, 60, of Bayview, were the top two vote-getters in a contentious four-way primary between Helland and three veteran firefighters for Position 3 on the board.

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

Response times, the efficient use of equipment and the way money has been spent in the district also were issues.

The district is contending with growing pains from a rising retirement population, and it will have a new fire chief in February, when Chief Dan Stout retires.

Helland was was out of the area on Tuesday night, and was unavailable for comment.

Gabelein said Tuesday night he would wait until more votes come in before he makes a further comment.

"I can't believe only 39 percent of the people have voted so far," he said. "We'll sit back and see what happens next."

Helland was 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 18 years.

During the campaign, Helland said he and the other commissioners, Kenon Simmons and Bob Elliot, have tried to be "lean and mean" in running the district, and that the volunteer system has been efficient.

During the campaign, Helland said the most important issue facing the district is to maintain a high level of service at a time when call volumes are increasing.

He also said volunteer recruitment and morale remain high, pointing to the fact that 12 new volunteers are undergoing training and will graduated next month.

Gabelein, a South Whidbey native and former district commissioner for 18 years, stressed his leadership and financial management experience, and his 38-year association with the fire district.

Retired from Washington State Ferries after 28 years as a boat captain, he and his wife run a bed-and-breakfast in the Bayview area.

He promised to improve recruitment, retention and morale of the volunteers, which he claimed was at a low. He also vowed to press for reinstatement of the six part-time paid firefighter positions discontinued by the district as a cost-saving measure earlier this year.

Gabelein said the daytime positions were necessary to keep a high level of service when many volunteers are unavailable to respond.

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

Commissioners on the three-member board must be residents of the district. They serve staggered six-year terms, meeting once a month, and receive about $95 per meeting.

A position on the commission comes up for a vote every two years.

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