Port Ludlow fire board candidates tackle top issues | 2021 Primary Election

Posted 7/21/21

The competition is heating up between prospective candidates for the Port Ludlow Fire District 3’s Position 3 seat as Mike Feely, Glenn Clemens and incumbent Ron Helmonds square off in the …

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Port Ludlow fire board candidates tackle top issues | 2021 Primary Election

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The competition is heating up between prospective candidates for the Port Ludlow Fire District 3’s Position 3 seat as Mike Feely, Glenn Clemens and incumbent Ron Helmonds square off in the upcoming Aug. 3 Primary Election.

Key issues facing the prospective commissioners include a recently-passed interlocal agreement between Port Ludlow Fire & Rescue and East Jefferson Fire Rescue; a strained relationship between the firefighters union and the commission after an attempted ousting of Fire Chief Brad Martin earlier this year; and whether volunteer firefighters should be allowed to serve as commissioners for the fire district, following a move by Fire Commissioner Ed Davis to remove a longtime volunteer firefighter from the district’s ranks due to her tenure as a commissioner back in May.

The Port Townsend Leader tracked down each of the candidates and gave them a chance to share their thoughts on the most pressing issues currently facing the fire district.

Of his decision to run as a commissioner for the fire district, Feely said he has been disabled since 2004 and he’s “just trying to find something to do that I’m qualified to do, having come up through the ranks of North Kitsap Fire & Rescue.”

“I just wanted to see if I could help out. I noticed in the paper that they’ve had some issues with their fire chief and it sounds like they’ve got growing pains,” Feely continued, noting that his experience could also help the district navigate any issues arising from the proposed collaboration between Port Ludlow Fire & Rescue and East Jefferson Fire Rescue via an interlocal agreement.

Clemons said he’s spent a decade as a volunteer firefighter in Monroe, Oregon, but added that he’s been in Jefferson County off-and-on for more than 30 years by his estimation.

“I had a residence here and I’ve been in Port Ludlow since 2014,” he said. “I think we’ve got a really great fire department and I just want to support them.”

Clemons added that, if elected, he would like to tackle the matter of transparency within the district.

Helmonds said it was his wish to use his years of experience to guide the fire district as it navigates the challenges of adapting to the new interlocal agreement, which was approved last week by Port Ludlow commissioners and goes to East Jefferson fire commissioners next week.

“The district is facing a few challenges now. They’re going through a few changes, including the new [Inter-local agreement] that was just voted upon,” Helmonds said.

“The implementation of that, the modification as it may be, as things progress — I’m sure they will need to get changed in one form or another. Impact on the district, financial, morale. It all has to be dealt with and I believe that I’m in a better position to help get the district through that.”

Leadership questions

Of the attempt to remove Martin as chief, Feely said he believed in first retraining before removing.

“I’ve always been a firm believer that it’s easier on the department to try to retrain the chief rather than terminate,” he said. “They’ve got a lot of money invested in training and I’m not so quick to terminate or not renew a contract.”

“It sounds like there wasn’t anything that couldn’t be retrainable,” Feely added.

When the union voted to remove Martin — the first ever vote by the Local 3811 against their chief — it faulted Martin for a lack of strategic planning and the loss of career firefighters who had left to take jobs with other departments.

“That’s pretty devastating,” Clemens said. “The community’s got a helluva lot of money in training these people, for them to be dissatisfied and leaving is a loss-loss for everybody.”

He added that when it comes to mending fences between the union and the commission, good communication will be key.

“Good communication and supporting the people who actually do the job,” Clemens said. “What can we do to help you? When we help [the union] we help the community.” 

According to Helmonds, the district’s leadership is already working toward a better relationship with the union.

“I think we’re already on the way,” Helmonds said. “Since we’ve made this management change, I think we’ve had better communication with the union than we’ve had … for the last three or four years.”

Two-role commissioners

When posed with the question “Should volunteer firefighters be allowed to serve as fire district commissioners?” Helmonds didn’t hesitate before offering his response.

“I believe they should, absolutely,” Helmonds said, deviating from the sentiments of his fellow commissioner Davis. “Everybody speaks for themselves and the board has spoken and that’s how it works. I believe that a volunteer should have that opportunity.”

Feely said so long as there wasn’t a conflict, he had no issues with volunteer firefighters working as commissioners.

“They might have to excuse themselves on a money issue or some negotiable type of thing. Other than that, I don’t see that there’s a big problem,” Feely said.

And Clemons made three.

“I don’t see any reason why they couldn’t [serve],” Clemons said. “I don’t see why it would be a problem. If the public is happy with the commissioner to volunteer [as a firefighter] I don’t see why it should be an issue with the department,” he said. “I think the more communication the commissioners have with the frontline employees, the better it’ll be.”

Musings on mergers

On the topic of a potential merger with East Jefferson Fire Rescue, the incumbent first lauded the efforts of those who’ve worked on the new contract between the two districts.

“Working in conjunction with East Jefferson and their management and Chief Black [on the interlocal agreement] has been outstanding so far with this change,” Helmonds said.

On a merger with EJFR, the incumbent thought it was worth looking into.

“I think that mergers are very popular and it’s difficult for small districts to survive,” Helmonds said. “However, I think that it’s important that all of us commissioners keep in mind that we do best for our constituents, the people in Port Ludlow.”

Feely held back no praise in his support for a merger between the districts.

“I’m a firm believer in mergers,” Feely said. “I came up through the ranks when fire departments were their own … little empires and they wanted to build off of that.”

He noted that when certain departments grew to a significant size, they often duplicate the services and staffing being offered by nearby departments, effectively creating identical departments for the same areas being served.

“It’s workable. And I know it is because North Kitsap Fire & Rescue went through several mergers,” he said. “I think the county could be one fire department, actually.”

Clemens refrained from offering a take on the matter of a merger until he’d had a chance to hear all sides of the argument.

“I would have to see both sides of the story. It’s kind of hard to get any info on,” he said. “I couldn’t make an intelligent decision [on a merger] until I heard the pros and cons of it.”

Final thoughts

Feely said it was his intent to push for a bolstered volunteer force within the district.

“I’m all for manning as many fire stations as you can,” Feely said. “Volunteers are just as important to me as the paid staff. I think the volunteer [firefighters] could be just as professional as the career firefighter.”

“Response times are the most important thing that the fire department can have,” he added.

Helmonds pointed to the responsibilities of a commissioner.

“Our job ultimately is to provide the best services we can to our constituents and that is the bottom line,” he said. “You have to weigh that with, ‘What can we afford to do and how long can we afford to do that?’”

Helmonds also said his experience places him at a significant advantage over his opponents.

“I think that having been on the board for a while is a plus in that we have a bit of a row to hoe as our district changes,” the incumbent explained. “When I first became a commissioner, I watched and attended meetings for about a year before I became a commissioner. I think that is a big benefit. I don’t know if my competition has done that.”

Clemons pointed to his work as a captain in the Merchant Marine as being indicative of what he wished to provide to those serving the fire district.

“I worked in the Merchant Marine for over 30 years,” Clemons said. “I worked all over the world, I worked with a lot of different cultures, in a lot of different places, in a lot of different countries. I always took care of my crew and my crew took care of me. I guess you could say I’m a team builder and a problem solver.”

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