A retired Spokane Valley railroad conductor is challenging a 30-year incumbent for his seat on the Spokane Valley Fire Commission.
The commission is a five-member board that oversees about 200 employees who serve about 75 square miles including Spokane Valley, Liberty Lake, Millwood, Otis Orchards and Pasadena Park, as well as other unincorporated areas of Spokane County. The board also oversees a $37.5 million budget. Fire commissioners are paid about $12,200 a year.
Ron Schmidt is the longest-serving fire commissioner on the board, a member since 1990. He said he’s spent decades trying to make conditions better for firefighters.
“I have the experience and I have proven that my experience has helped build the finest fire district in all of Washington state, and I want to continue that,” he said. “We want to do that very best, and deliver the best product to all our constituents.”
Challenger Mike Kester said he has close friends and family members who are firefighters, and safety is his highest priority. He said he plans to make sure every firefighter has the equipment they need and know they can go directly to commissioners if they have any concerns. He said firefighters often have good ideas about how to improve their stations, and the commissioners should make hearing from them a priority.
“Right now, your firefighters can’t go to commissioners and talk to them, there’s a wall built,” Kester said.
Kester said he’d like to see more transparency and education on the issues. He said commissioners also don’t discuss their votes enough and often vote together. He said there needs to be a fresh perspective to shake up the board’s way of doing things.
“You’re going to need someone who’s going to have an open door,” he said. “I’m going to be available for people to say things. I’m fiscally responsible, and I’m not going to rubber stamp things.”
Schmidt said communication can always be improved, but it’s also a “two-way street.”
“Whenever there is a fireman that wants to talk, we talk to them,” Schmidt said.
When firefighters raise concerns, commissioners do their best to address them, Schmidt said. But sometimes they can’t always give employees what they want because of limitations in state law or the district’s budget.
Schmidt said improving communication is a problem he’s worked at since first becoming a commissioner. He said in the 1990s, the department brought in an outside “think tank” group to discuss teamwork with the staff, and the department has continued to improve over the years. The department now has a level 2 insurance rating – the best in Eastern Washington. Lower ratings can equate to lower insurance premiums in the city.
“We turned around and became a great fire department because we learned to work together,” he said.
Kester, and challenger Bradley Mertens, who is running for position 1, were endorsed by the Spokane Valley firefighters union. Union president George Hedebeck said current leadership has leaned toward the administration, and the union was looking for a candidate more closely aligned with labor.
Schmidt said he originally ran in 1989 because a union leader asked him to, and the contract the department has now is fair to employees.
“They have a good union contract and great working conditions,” Schmidt said. “We take care of them and make sure they have everything they need.”
Kester said he was a member of a union while working for the railroad, and said his experience at the railroad has taught him to work well with many types of personalities, and if he was elected, he would make sure everyone was heard and firefighters’ voices were prioritized.
He said recent lawsuits, arbitration and disagreements show there has been some unnecessary bickering that cost taxpayers money, and could potentially have been solved with better communication and openness.
“I live in the Valley and I’m a taxpayer. I’m on a fixed income. The fact that money is being wasted is important to me. It comes out of my wallet just like every other taxpayer and citizen.”
Schmidt said the department doesn’t jump into lawsuits and tries to work with people as much as they can before getting into a legal battle, but they can’t always be avoided.
Schmidt recently was released from the hospital after being treated for kidney cancer. He is now cancer-free, and is recovering at home.
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