Call it a portent. One year ago, voters residing within the rural boundaries of Okanogan County Fire District 6 rejected a property tax levy increase to pay for construction of new, $2.4 million fire station in Winthrop.
Last Tuesday (Nov. 3), voters apparently turned out incumbent Roy Reiber in the race for an open seat on the district’s three-member board of commissioners. Les Stokes, himself a longtime firefighter, appears to have been elected. (Final returns were not available by press time, but Stokes held an 808-739 lead in the vote totals with a tiny percentage of the votes yet to be counted).
Voters rejected the November 2014 levy proposal by 54 percent to 46 percent. As of the most-recent count in the commissioner contest, Stokes had drawn 52 percent of the votes, Reiber 48 percent.
That’s a close enough similarity to suggest that the outcome of last Tuesday’s election is at the least an echo of last year’s bond proposal defeat. A majority of the district’s residents seemingly remain unconvinced about supporting the existing plans for a new fire hall.
There has been little public resistance to the idea of a new hall to replace the cramped and potentially unsafe building on Bluff Street with a new facility on Horizon Flats Road. The devil has always been in the details. The most persistent publicly expressed concerns have been with the size, amenities and cost of the proposed new hall.
The board of commissioners has, depending on whom you talk to, either been defiantly stubborn or heroically unshakeable in its support of the plans as originally developed, with few if any changes. Nor has public support for the new fire station (as proposed) increased. It was that standoff which, to a large extent, led to Stokes’ candidacy.
But it also was in part a response to Reiber’s public comments about the new fire hall plans and his seeming disinterest in what the voters had to say after the levy election. His support for the original concept hasn’t wavered, in the face of loud-and-clear public concerns. Reiber is, however, just one of three commissioners, and the entire board is being sent a message of expected accountability by the most recent election results. If the election a year ago was a portent, Tuesday’s was an emphatic reminder.
That’s not to say the election was all about Reiber. He is liked and admired in the community, and has devoted a large part of his life to public service in the Methow Valley. All of us have much to thank him for. Over the years, few people have come forward to run for the district’s board of commissioners. It’s a role that typically doesn’t get much public attention and perhaps is taken for granted. It shouldn’t be. Reiber stepped up when the community needed him.
Most people seem to appreciate that, even if they disagreed about the fire station. The commission race played out like a low-key drama with a meaningful back-story. Reiber and Stokes both lined up supporters willing to offer their names (and money, one supposes) to back each candidate. There was not a lot of overt campaigning, and district residents had few opportunities to see the candidates in public settings. Yet voters seem to have drawn their own distinctions and acted on them.
Not everyone who is served by District 6 had a say. The results of both the 2014 and 2015 elections reflect the votes of fire district residents who live outside the town limits of Twisp and Winthrop. The two towns independently contract with the district for fire service, and there is a fire hall in each town. It’s tempting to speculate what the outcome might have been in either election if town residents could vote, but there’s no way to know which way they’d lean.
Come January, when Stokes takes office, the need for a new fire hall will be just as urgent. Our hope is that the newly constituted commission will find a way to make it happen as soon as possible, with the public’s backing.
— Don Nelson