Reelection fight flares for East County Fire

2 challengers of 3 incumbents favor joining departments

By John Branton, Columbian Staff Reporter

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Strange politics are brewing at East County Fire & Rescue, where 18 paid employees and 50 volunteers work to protect about 10,100 folks who live in 60 square miles of pretty, rural hills wrapped around Camas and Washougal.

In past years, East County’s five commissioner positions have often had only one candidate, the incumbent.

But now three positions are open, and three challengers have appeared in the distance.

With the general election coming Nov. 8, there’s been almost no communication between the challengers and the incumbents — and, for that matter, with the citizens who live there and will be voting.

“It puzzles us because none of the challengers have said why they are running,” said Jack Hoober, a retired airline pilot who has served on the board for 12 years. “What’s their objective? What do they want to change?”

“I haven’t really had a chance to present myself,” said challenger Thomas Gianatasio, who retired in 1999 as a captain with the San Jose, Calif., fire department.

Officials say there have been no large public meetings where the six candidates could express their ideas.

East County’s volunteer firefighters’ association has put up a website, http://www.FComm.org, that urges residents to “Keep Your Fire District.”

The writers say incumbents Hoober, John E. Clancy and Gary Larson have worked hard to keep the district’s finances in excellent order, in the black despite the economic downturn.

So far, no one including the challengers has cast any doubt about the good work of the incumbents.

But FComm’s writers make a number of allegations about the challengers, including that they want to “hijack” the board with officials “more agreeable to consolidation,” grab East County’s $1.6 million in tax revenues and use the money to save union jobs and balance Camas’s emergency medical service deficit.

The authors also claim that the challengers want to do away with volunteers.

All three incumbents, in their election-guide briefs, refer readers to FComm’s allegations.

In interviews with all six candidates, The Columbian heard that two of the challengers favor considering consolidation, likely with Camas and Washougal. ECFR itself is a merger of former fire districts 1 and 9.

But doing away with volunteer firefighters and medics?

All three challengers say that came out of nowhere and they strongly deny it.

Challenger Brooks Cooper is a captain with the Camas Fire Department, employed there for 22 years and a volunteer five years before that.

A resident of Fern Prairie, he said he glanced at FComm.

“It’s unfortunate they want to accuse us of something that’s not true,” he said. “The volunteers are the backbone of ECFR. Volunteers are crucial to make it work. It’s too large of an area. It can’t work without the volunteers.”

In future years, Cooper predicts that Camas and Washougal will annex parts of ECFR and its area will shrink, and the board should “look toward a more regional approach that could save money.”

Cooper denied being recruited by anyone.

Challenger and current Firefighter Kenny Cochran said he belongs to the Vancouver firefighters union local and is not involved in any concerted effort to seize control of ECFR.

He added: “I only see good things happening with the volunteers. I have never said I’d get rid of volunteers. They are needed and my idea is to elevate them to a higher level (of training).”

If elected, Cochran said, he too would like to look into the idea of consolidation.

As for challenger Gianatasio, he served as a career firefighter for 36 years in San Jose, retiring as a captain, and also is a former licensed contractor in California.

He said he moved to the area with the perspective of a big-city fire department and, in some encounters with ECFR, “I didn’t like what I saw.” He said the agency could be “more professional.”

He said firefighters didn’t seem to have a plan for high water last winter and spoke of buying a $7,000 hose tester that isn’t needed.

“I’m not sure they understand how complex this thing is,” incumbent Clancy said. “What’s called for is planning, budgeting and things like that. Our duties are pretty well set forth in the law.”

Said Hoober: “Ninety percent of our income roughly is property taxes,” which have fallen and may fall further. To keep ECFR completely out of debt “requires an awful lot of careful monitoring.”

The board has no plans to close any outlying stations, which could increase insurance rates for nearby homeowners by as much as $400 per year, said Larson, a commissioner for 30 years.

Larson said the board will operate on its budget and has no plans to ask voters for more.

John Branton: 360-735-4513; http://www.twitter.com/col_cops; john.branton@columbian.com.