When Frank Mestemacher decided not to seek re-election for his seat on the board of commissioners for South Whidbey Fire/EMS, his position garnered little attention at first.
That is, until last month, when two candidates filed for it during Island County’s special filing period.
Jim Towers, a former firefighter with the district, and Savannah Erickson, a former Federal Emergency Management Agency spokesperson, are vying for the seat on the fire district board.
Both candidates said they were initially hesitant to run. But over the summer, after thinking things through, they decided to throw their hats in the ring.
Towers was a volunteer firefighter for 35 years who, despite his retirement from the district last month, did not yet feel ready to sever his connection with South Whidbey Fire/EMS.
“I would bring a knowledge of the fire service and how it works, what it needs,” he said.
Although he’s never run for office before, the naval architect has served on management boards for at least three private companies, including the one he works for currently.
“I know pretty much what the board members are expected to do,” he said.
Erickson, who is now an entrepreneur, spent over a decade responding to large-scale disasters in her previous career as a communications person for FEMA.
“That experience took me across the country serving on major disaster operations, from earthquakes to flooding to hurricanes,” she said.
This is also her first time seeking office.
“Almost all of the leadership presently for South Whidbey Fire/EMS are men, and they’re older men,” she said. “I bring a younger, fresher perspective. I think that the broad experience that I have in emergency management is a good one because I’ve had the opportunity to see how many different states operate.”
Both Erickson and Towers highlighted volunteer retention in the fire district as being a priority.
Erickson suggested that more effective communication, internally and externally, could help restore the district’s dwindling supply of volunteers.
Towers said the number of volunteers may be at its lowest since 1986. The concentration recently has been on recruiting paid staff, which may have taken the focus off of keeping volunteers. Getting rid of volunteers too quickly, as he pointed out, could come with a big cost.
“I think the district is very much in transition and change is inevitable, in fact it’s good,” he said. “But it also needs to be carefully thought-out change, or it could be very expensive.”
But, if elected, Towers said he would also like to continue retaining the paid firefighting staff. He suggested “improving service with carefully planned budget increases.” He cited his experience budgeting for the companies he has been involved in.
“I think I’ve got a good business understanding and I think I’m reasonably well-known in the community,” Towers said.
Erickson, on the other hand, highlighted her listening and communication skills as her strengths.
She said increasing engagement with board of commissioner meetings, which can be sparsely attended, should be a priority. She also suggested recording the meetings.
“I would like to put myself out there a little bit more so people know who I am and they can come to me with input, whether they’re in the department or they’re a community member,” she said.
“I bring a lot of compassion and enthusiasm and energy to the role,” she added. “I just want to do right by our community and our department. I want to do a good job and that’s what I’m about.”
The elected position is a six-year term.
There is a chance that both Towers and Erickson may be able to serve on the board. Commissioner Larry Metz is moving outside of the district and vacating his seat, which means a new candidate will be appointed to Position 1 and serve the remainder of his term, which runs until 2023.
Metz’s name will still appear on the ballot, since it was too late for him to withdraw from the election at the time of his resignation.
The appointment of Metz’s successor won’t be made until after Election Day, meaning the person who loses the election for Mestemacher’s seat could be in contention for the position. The appointment for the new commissioner is expected to be made Nov. 9, although Fire Chief Rusty Palmer said there is some leeway in the event that the race for Position 3 is too close to call.
“Worst case scenario, if they didn’t know, the board has another month to make that replacement,” Palmer said.
Position 1 must be filled by Dec. 9. Election results for Position 3 will be certified Nov. 23.
Letters of interest for Position 1 must be submitted to Palmer by email to Chief@swfe.org, hand-delivered to the Bayview Station 36, or sent by mail to 5579 Bayview Road, Langley, WA 98260. Letters must be submitted by Oct. 22.
Palmer said he anticipates there being a lot of interest in Metz’s vacancy. Last time the board had a vacancy, there were six applicants for the position.