After the election, the letters to the editor, the talk on the street and comments at last week’s meeting of the Okanogan County Fire District 6 commissioners, it would be helpful if everyone associated with the district understood this loud and clear message from the public:
It’s not about the firefighters. It’s about the fire hall.
It seems that some firefighters are taking the rejection of a levy increase intended to finance construction of a new fire hall in Winthrop somewhat personally.
They shouldn’t. Nobody is criticizing the district’s firefighters or the job they do to protect us, most of them voluntarily and all of them accepting the potential dangers. And there’s almost no disagreement about the need for a new fire hall to replace the existing antiquated and problematic structure in Winthrop.
But plenty of people have problems with the proposed fire hall — 54 percent of the voters, to be precise. In the field of election analysis, that’s not even close.
The common sentiment about the proposed fire hall is that it is, simply put, just too much — too much space, too many offices, too many amenities that don’t seem to have a direct bearing on firefighting from the public’s perspective.
The district’s leaders have compounded that public apprehension by, in effect, brushing critics and questioners aside and not budging on the design. And we have heard that they’ve fueled their own firefighters’ anger by suggesting that the public is against them.
That is simply not true, and anyone suggesting that is unnecessarily sowing seeds of discontent, as in: What if the firemen quit? What if they can’t respond?
What if everyone just calms down a little bit? And that includes detractors with conspiracy theories.
It’s never going to be a winning strategy to tell the voters that you don’t care what they think and nothing they say (or decide at the polls) will change your mind.
There are some simmering issues about the fire hall proposal that, after many years, never seem to get resolved in some minds — about the site of the proposed new facility, the cost of the property, the details of the sale. A lot of people want to keep talking about these things but the fact is that, as a practical matter, they are beside the point.
Except in one way: they go to the credibility of the commissioners, who did not help themselves in that respect when they said after the election that, hey, we don’t really need a levy, we’ve got enough money coming in to build a new hall without new taxes.
You could almost hear the collective “say what?” rolling through the valley after that bit of information was aired. Not only did the district not need the money, it’s going to build the fire hall it wants to build — the one the public rejected — with money it already has.
It’s hard to believe the commissioners didn’t think that would be a problem.
But maybe reality is making a dent. At their meeting last week, the commissioners indicated they will be looking at some alternatives.
Let’s hope so. Nobody in this community is comfortable about clashing with the district’s leadership. It’s not fun, it’s not productive and it’s not necessary. The commissioners are, let’s not forget, volunteer public servants and honorable people who ultimately want what’s best for their firefighters. It’s not their motives that are being questioned, but rather some of their methods.
At the same time, they are elected officials, and the first duty of an elected official is to be responsive to the electorate. We’ve heard, and many of you have heard them too, rumblings about another public uprising along the lines of the one that shook up the Okanogan County Electric Cooperative a few years back. In retrospect, that revolution was necessary, but it’s not a pretty precedent. Let’s avoid a repeat if we can.