On May 21, 2013 Oregonians will vote for several local positions in a general election. Most positions up for election in Vernonia have candidates that are running unopposed. The Vernonia Rural Fire Protection District has two open positions. Luke Ellis and Mike Demeter are running against each other for Position 5 ; Ben Davis is running unopposed for Position 1 .
Vernonia’s Voice sat down with each of these three candidates for interviews to help give our readers some insight into their views and perspective on the position they are running for.
Tell us a little about your background and personal life. What is your fire experience and what are your qualifications for this position?
Ben Davis: I joined the VRFPD in 1999 right out of high school; our family had just moved to Vernonia and I thought it was a good way to become a part of the community and meet new people. I went on to PCC and got my Associates Degree in Fire Science and followed that up by getting my National Registry Paramedic. During that four or five year period I continued volunteering with Vernonia and progressed from Firefighter to Lieutenant to Deputy Chief and eventually served for two years as Training Officer. I worked full time during that time frame as a Paramedic in Washington County for Metro West Ambulance and in 2005 was hired full time as a Paramedic/Firefighter at Columbia River Fire and Rescue. With them I am now an acting Lieutenent, filling in as company officer when someone is away, and have been continuing to progress with my leadership, experience, and education. I have also continued my education and am pursuing, part-time, my Bachelor’s Degree in Fire Administration through Eastern Oregon University. I am currently a Firefighter with VRFPD, having stepped down from the Deputy Chief and Training Officer positions because of the large time commitment needed to fill those roles appropriately.
Throughout the time I’ve been involved with VRFPD and with Columbia River I have served at different levels, including with the Vernonia Volunteer Association. I have some experience with Public Meeting Law. My degree in Fire Science and my continuing education give me a solid background in operations.
I married Christie Brown Davis in 2007; we met through VRFPD. Christie is also a Paramedic who works for Metro West and teaches at PCC. We have a son, little Ben who is 21 months old.
Luke Ellis: I grew up in Vernonia and lived here for twenty-nine years. I graduated from high school here and then got my culinary degree from Western Culinary Institute. When I was a junior in high school I was part of the Fire Science program we had here and then joined the department during my senior year in 2002, so I have been a firefighter here for over eleven years. I recently helped start the Pancake Breakfast, I’ve been an Officer-in-Training, and I’ve grown with the department and helped it move forward.
I would bring the perspective of the volunteers to the Board. I have a different point of view than a lot of the Board members currently have. I am more for the volunteers and for better Public Relations and communicating with the public. I want to make sure the volunteers are taken care of. I also know we can’t lose sight of the business side and make sure that things get done and paid.
I am married to Torie, who has also been a volunteer Firefighter for eight years. We have three children: Joseph, 6, Jordynn, 3 and Joshwa, 2. Our children are sixth generation Vernonians.
Mike Demeter: My wife Marci and I moved here in 1989 so this will be our twenty-fourth year in Vernonia. People in the community may know who Marci and I are, we’re the people with the large Irish Wolfhounds; we try to march in the St. Patrick’s Day Parade every year.
When we first moved out here we were destitute, to put it mildly, and so we used a lot of the services that were available. Over the years as things have improved for us we have managed to start giving things back to the community. I joined the Fire Department a little over five years ago, right after the flood when we had lost so many of our firefighters who had to move away or quit. I worked with the department for a little over four years; I resigned in January because my work situation changed and I was no longer able to meet the time and training requirements.
I work for Intel, I’m a staff security engineer there and I travel the world working with very diverse groups of people. I work in multi-cultural, diverse groups, trying to find consensus, trying to work getting things done. We always tell people, “Don’t come to the table with a problem, come to the table with a solution.” I think people need to do their homework and bring solutions so you can move forward.
Why are you running for the VRFPD Board of Directors?
Ben Davis: The Board of Directors is something I have been interested in for a while because it’s a position where I feel I can still serve the community. Right now I feel this is the best way for me to serve the department and the community with not as much of a time commitment. I also have a lot of interest because it has to do with the administration side of the district; to this point I have mostly been involved in day-to-day operations and I am really taking more interest in the strategic planning, long term goals and administration of fire districts, not just the responding aspect. That is the direction I am wanting to go and still be able to serve the community.
Luke Ellis: I think the best step for me now to move further is to join the Board and implement changes.
I see things falling through the cracks on the Board. I want to see it run like a business. If you don’t run it like a business it will go under.
I have been on the department and have seen what has gone on in the past and been here as we worked through the hard times and tried to rebuild it. I want the community to know that we are here for them, not just because we have to be there. I want the community to know what we do and somehow give more ownership to the community. We’re a small community and a small department. If you pull the community in more I think we will go further and people will respect more what we do and understand what we do and support what we are trying to do.
Mike Demeter: We have lived here for both of the floods. I know how depressed the economy is here. I know for a fact that the Fire Department has lots of needs, lots of things that are breaking on a regular basis and it costs them tons of money to fix. The problem is that we can’t go to the community and ask them for more money, because they are already cash strapped with the water rates, the electric rates, our tax rates and the work base-there is no work here. So it’s going to take people who can go out and look for other means to resolve it.
My job with Intel and the amount of travel that I do was prohibiting me from volunteering. I didn’t want to resign but it was getting harder and harder for me to maintain the 135 hours of minimum training each year. It was very frustrating for me to not be able to go out on calls, so this is a way for me to still be involved with the Fire Department because I really miss it.
I want to do this for myself and for the community. I joined the Fire Department to give back to the community. I had to leave because my job required it, so I wanted something that I could do even if I’m away—I can do the reading and the work when I’m away and with Board meetings just once a month I can contribute. I have access to lots of research tools and capabilities. I have written grants for VRFPD in the past, this would give me more time and a chance to help in that way.
As a Board member, what would you hope to accomplish? What are your goals?
Ben Davis: A Board members role is to set policy, make sure the budget is balanced properly and that the public’s funds are spent correctly. I think, at times we have had Board members who have maybe tried to get a little too involved in operations, which is not their position. My goal as a Board member is to help with the long term direction that Chief Smith and the volunteers want to go. The Board needs to work as a team to find ways to promote and reach those long term goals. We have a good group of volunteers and we have a good Chief and as a Board member I hope we can help them accomplish their goals within the confines of the budget and the law. My goals include helping with the strategic planning and direction.
Personally, over the years I have seen a need in the training aspect-it’s why I filled that role for several years. I personally think the department, in the future, may need at least a part-time, paid position created—someone who can dedicate time to do that training for us. It is a job that requires a big commitment and isn’t something Chief Smith necessarily has time to do. There are a lot of small departments around the state that have a paid Chief and a part-time training officer to make the organization run well, I think that is a good goal for the district.
There are also long term issues with apparatus that needs to be replaced and some issues with the station facility that may need to be changed in the future. Those are long term things that I think, between the Board of Directors, the Chief and the volunteers, we can all get on the same page and really move forward with a good strategic plan.
Luke Ellis: I think we need to figure out how we can get a second paid person at the station full time, so we have someone there five days a week, from 9 to 5.
We also need to do something to update the rigs. Maybe going out and getting some grants or eventually to push for a bond, but figuring out how to get some new rigs. There are four rigs that honestly need to be replaced.
I think we need goals for the department, in the sense that the Board is just finally now starting to give long term goals-where they see the department heading. There is a group of us that have pushing and asking for that from the Board for years. Wanting to know where they see us in three years, in five years, in ten years. We need to have those goals set so we have something to work towards and mold our department to make it better and better serve the community.
Mike Demeter: As I’ve already said, finding a way to fund our Fire Department and get them the things they need without having to go to the community to get it. Because the stuff they are most in need of is way beyond what the community can afford to put out.
What are some things that you think are going well for the VRFPD? What do you think might need to be changed?
Ben Davis: I think we have a good group of dedicated volunteers. I think we have a good sense of community in Vernonia. We have a good Chief in Dean Smith who is moving forward with his education and his experience while balancing all the different areas where he needs to commit time. I think we are moving in a good direction. We had a couple rough years with the flood, Chief Epler leaving, with volunteers having to leave because of how they were affected by the flood, and bringing on and training a whole new group of volunteers. We have brought on and trained a new group of officers, started our Explorer Program and a Logistics Program—these are really good things we have been able to put in place over the last five years. Now we are at the point where we can start looking out five, ten and fifteen years instead of focusing on what we need to do to get through the next two years.
Like I said before, I think there are some issues with aging apparatus, which almost every department in the state is facing with budget cutbacks. I think we need to explore creative ways to fund that. I think the issues with the station need to be addressed; we have really pushed the limits of what we can do there and we are really doing a lot with what we have, but I really see some changes that need to happen with that station so we can expand in some ways that would really benefit the community. And as I mentioned before the addition of a part-time training officer to really keep an eye on meeting all the requirements as well as move forward with our current volunteers and exceed the minimum requirements.
Luke Ellis: I’m glad they finally decided to make Dean Smith the Chief. When they first made Dean Deputy Chief we asked the Board for guidance-where do you see us in three years, where do you see us in five years. They didn’t know. We wanted a Chief. We wanted to know what their plan was. I’m tired of the Board not giving a clear or direct answer to the Volunteer Association. Having been a volunteer for so long I think I can speak for the volunteers and the public. There needs to be more guidance. We need a second full time person to act as Training Officer. We need more structure. We need more communication.
Mike Demeter: I think one of the best things is that they finally have someone, Dean Smith, as Chief. I have watched the Department go from basically falling apart to where it is today. It is a very well-run department that, instead of going from month to month wondering how we are going to get things done, now we are at a point where, month to month we have things done and we can look forward, instead of having to look backwards.
The number of volunteers is great! It is so great to see so many people step out and be part of it. They are probably some of the best trained volunteers around. They put in a ton of time.
We need to get them what they need to do their job and protect the community. I’m sure people have seen some of the older engines we have; they are over twenty-five years old. It’s actually a very dangerous situations. We are asking these folks to go out and put their lives on the line to protect our property and protect our families. We really need to give them the best equipment we can. That’s one place they are really hurting.
There are some things about the way the public perceives the department; things have gotten better in the last few years. I think the public perception of the Fire Department needs to be raised so they understand what these folks are doing for them.