Group would provide input on issues such as new fire hall site
By Ann McCreary
For more than two years, local residents have repeatedly urged commissioners of Okanogan County Fire District 6 to seek more citizen input on district matters, such as building a new fire station.
The controversial fire station proposal is on hold, at least for the time being, after a tax levy increase to pay for the fire hall construction was rejected by voters two years ago. Commissioners decided the district could not finance the new fire hall without a tax increase.
But commissioners are taking action on citizen requests for greater involvement in Fire District 6 affairs, and are planning to create a citizens’ advisory committee.
Commissioners discussed the idea of an advisory committee last week during a special meeting called for that purpose.
The committee would be formed primarily to gather information from the community, and to provide public input to Fire District commissioners on specific topics, commissioners said.
Commissioners discussed the general goals and structure of an advisory committee, but decided to wait until their next regular meeting on Tuesday (Dec. 13) to take formal action to establish the committee.
“What we’re trying to do is get the community involved — get more people involved,” said commissioner Jerry Palm.
Ron Perrow and Ross Darling, local residents who have urged commissioners to appoint an advisory board, attended the last week’s special meeting, and offered their ideas about the purpose of a citizens’ committee.
“It would promote involvement and communication between the public and the board,” Perrow said. “When you have an issue like a fire hall building or an upcoming [tax] levy, you would have a committee to help inform you.”
Issues to consider
The fire district “has failed two levies in a row,” Perrow said. “In order to pass a levy, you have to do a better job of educating the public.”
Commissioners discussed the purposes of an advisory group, and determined that it should be tasked with considering and providing input on specific issues. Committee membership might change, depending on the issue to be addressed, they said.
“If you have a goal, then people who apply [for the committee] will be knowledgeable” about that subject, Darling said.
The first issue, commissioners decided, should be to consider the proposed location of a new fire hall and whether the 5-acre property purchased in 2010 by Fire District 6 on Horizon Flats in Winthrop is the best place to build.
During discussions about building a new fire station at district meetings over the past two years, many members of the public questioned the Horizon Flats location and the district’s decision to buy the property. Among the concerns were the $380,000 purchase price, and the parcel’s location on a hill accessed by a curving road.
“The property is a good place [for the committee] to start,” said Palm.
“We would need to provide all the information up front, so they don’t have to reinvent the wheel” in considering the issue, said commissioner Darold Brandenburg.
Commissioners tentatively settled on a committee size of eight members, who will be chosen by the commission. The district plans to advertise for applicants.
The committee meetings would be open to the public and people who not on the committee would be welcome to attend and provide comment, commissioners said. They also agreed that a commissioner would need to be present at each committee meeting.
Need to listen
Establishing an advisory committee “is a great start,” but its effectiveness will depend on whether fire district officials are truly willing to listen to the advice it offers, Darling said after last week’s meeting.
Darling said he served on an advisory committee set up by the fire district a few years ago, prior to the district’s most recent unsuccessful levy election in 2014. He said it eventually became clear that the committee was created to promote the levy to build a new fire station, rather than advise the fire district.
“It was always about the building — why they needed it. What they wanted us to do was go out and sell it. They [district officials] finally came to us and said, ‘I guess we misnamed this as an advisory committee. It should have been an election committee,’” Darling said.
The committee subsequently disbanded, he said. “Because of my past experience, I may be a little pessimistic.”
Perrow said the commission’s decision to establish an advisory committee “is a step in the right direction.” But like Darling, he said the district’s response would determine whether the committee is successful.
“It could be effective in channeling community perceptions,” Perrow said. “But if the committee can’t be a conduit from the community to the commissioners, it won’t work.”