MEEKER I The Rio Blanco Herald Times recently sat down with each of the six candidates running for three seats on the Meeker Fire Board so each could voice his or her concerns for the Meeker Fire District.
Three of the six candidates are incumbents: Doug Overton, owner/manager of Northwest Auto, who has served on the board for many years, was a volunteer chief for 10 years and a member of the fire department for 22 years; Sherri Halandras, a former emergency medical services worker and now a registered nurse in the emergency room department of Grand River Hospital in Rifle, who has served on the board for four years; and Rick Dodds, a supervisor with Moody Construction, who has served a little less than two years, filling an open position in May 2014.
The challengers for those three slots are: Jamie Cogswell, a licensed home daycare owner; David Luzmoor, a retired chemical plant manager; and David Cole, a retired commercial airline pilot and now an aviation consultant.
All six candidates spoke candidly in their response to three questions:
Why are you running for the Fire Board? What do you bring to the table? How can you contribute?
Overton: “If we weren’t in the middle of trying to do some things we are doing, I honestly wouldn’t be running. But we’re in the middle of some things we need to finish off. We’re transitioning from a volunteer department to a paid chief. That is not easy. It needs to be done the right way, and I think I have a lot of experience that is helpful in that.”
Halandras: “I was on the service as an EMT and EMTI (intermediate) myself for nearly 10 years, so I understand that aspect. There is (however) a huge learning curve, I discovered, just learning how things are supposed to work, the rules and regulations. Now that I made it through that learning curve, I would like to be able to apply that. I think the board is supposed to manage the funds and oversee.”
Dodds: “I am running because I like to serve our community and make a difference, and, most importantly, to give back to a community that has given so much to me.”
Dodds went on to recount his long history of community service.
“I have served this community and county in some fashion for most of my adult life, as a patrol deputy for Rio Blanco County, a volunteer fire fighter, and coaching several aspects of youth sports from Special Olympics, recreation and Little League softball, baseball and football, junior high basketball and, for the last two years, as an assistant high school softball coach.
“I have almost two years of experience on the board, and I enjoy it,” he said. “I am familiar with the district’s budgeting and finances and have an interest in being a part of the district’s growth and stability.”
Cogswell: “Having worked on the Fire Department for five years (as an EMT), I feel I have a good perspective on the fire district’s needs and making sure the firefighters and EMS workers get the support to do their jobs the best they can do to help the community.”
Cogswell also added that there has been talk about an EMT being on the fire board to help it understand EMT needs.
“Maybe I can bridge that gap,” she said.
Luzmoor: “I started attending some board meetings back in January, both regular and special. Also, because I still lack a lot of information, I had a one-on-one meeting with each of the board members as well as the two employees here (Vicki Crawford and Marshall Cook). Having done all that and watching their struggle, I am absolutely confident that with my business experience managing a lot of change over 40 years, I can help this district.”
Cole: “Having lived in this community during the past 29 years, I have witnessed the good work our volunteer fire department has done. Recently, I have been spending more time in service to our community through activities in my church and our local VFW and American Legion. I wish to expand my community service by volunteering to serve on this fire board.”
Cole cited his past experience as further qualifications for the board: “My business experience includes serving on the CNCC Foundation Board, on its executive board, the newly formed Meeker Veterans Community Center Board and as owner of Cole Aviation Consulting. I believe this background would be helpful in furthering the Fire District Board’s objectives.”
Do you have a major concern or an issue you think is most important?
Overton: “The most important thing right now is that the majority of the fire department get representation. I believe there are some things going on (such as) a minority that is trying to take over—or get control, and I think that is wrong.”
Halandras: “I am concerned that the board does the best job it can to support the district. Funding wise, I think we are in good shape and have made good fiscal decisions. I think we operate well as a board and are pretty united. If we do disagree, we can agree to disagree. We’re going to be looking for a new fire chief pretty soon, but that can happen. So I don’t really have any major concerns. Every entity has issues, and I think some of those issues can’t be discussed publicly. If I spoke out on any of those as an individual, I would be out of line.”
Halandras went on to add, “I feel the biggest problem we have is recruitment and retention of volunteers. This is true in most volunteer departments. We would appreciate any ideas that might help us grow our group of dedicated volunteers.”
Dodds: “I have no major concerns with the district. My most important issue (however) is taking care of the taxpayers’ money and seeing that it is being put to good use. From budgeting, training and pension, just to name a few, the taxpayers need to know we work for them and we are here to serve them. The Meeker Volunteer Fire and Rescue is a very important attribute to our community, and it is important that our volunteers get proper up-to-date training and have proper equipment to be able to safely perform their duties.”
Cogswell: “I feel like there are a lot of really good ideas, but I think there is a lack of focus and commitment to get everyone headed in the right direction. I think some new people on the board will help do this.”
Luzmoor: “Yes, I do. The current fire chief is leaving. The man has been here on the job (only) a year. The tension I see in these board meetings, and frankly the open animosity I have witnessed, tells me that the board is at a crossroads. They’ve made the decision that they want a full-time career professional fire chief, but, from what I’ve seen, in my view, is a contradiction. The reason I use the term ‘crossroads’ is because I believe this board is struggling and failing, frankly, to enable this transition from a volunteer fire chief to a full-time professional. That is the crux of the matter.”
Luzmoor went on to note in his view that our community is also at a crossroads.
“The evidence that something is wrong is that people in this community, as far as I have been told, can’t remember when they had an election for these board positions,” he said. “So, the community needs to decide if they want the caretakers of what has happened to try it again or if they want some fresh thought brought in.”
Luzmoor’s concern went even deeper.
“I have seen other small towns go through this transition and fail miserably for the same reasons. The voters of this community, I am going to say, are largely uninformed of what has occurred here about getting (Fire Chief Marshall Cook) on board and having him be successful and sort out all the built-in resistance. We’ve got a marvelous group of people here. Forty-some wonderful people contribute to this thing and are trying to help people, and we have good people on the board trying to do the right thing. But the struggle is real.”
Cole: “My perception from attending a few of the board meetings is that the district is well funded through taxpayer mill levy. They have hired a full time chief and now wish to search for another. The largest concern I have for the future of the district in this process is that great care is taken to spell out the board’s expectation through a detailed job descriptions and evaluation criteria before the job is posted with community input.”
Cole also mentioned “an additional concern” that no other candidate addressed.
“Retirement issues regarding requirements and parity for both volunteer firefighters and ambulance personnel (need to) be resolved,” he said.
What do you look for in a fire chief?
Overton: “In this situation, at this particular time, in the development of this fire department, what I look for in a chief is different than five years from now or five years in the past. At this time, we need a special person who will get out there, pull his boots on and get dirty with the firemen, not one who sits behind a desk and manages. Eventually, we might get to that, but, to jump to that now, we can’t do that.”
Getting more specific in his definition, Overton added: “He’s got to be what I call a ‘working chief.’ He needs to get out there, get the respect of the guys, work with them and then get into the office and take care of the policies, requirements, those kind of things. But when that bell goes off, he needs to go with the firemen and get the job done.”
Halandras: “We had a paid volunteer chief for years who worked side by side with everybody. What I would like to see in a chief is a professional but somebody who will go out and get dirty and work side by side with the crew, somebody who loves the fire department and the people in it and who is willing to work with them.”
Halandras also voiced concerns about the difference between working with “volunteers” and “employees” in a paid department.
“As a former EMS director, I know this from personal experience,” she said, “You have to cut them some slack sometimes. I also want someone who supports the board in its decisions.”
Dodds: “We will work hard to find a perfect fit for the district and the community and a person who will represent our department well. This position needs to have knowledge of fire and EMS and work side by side with our members and not be afraid to get their hands dirty and be a working part of the team.”
Cogswell: “Someone who understands the complicated nature of the rural community, someone who is committed to the community and someone who considers input from the community, firefighters and EMS personnel. Also someone who will help the department grow and lead by example.”
Cogswell went on to add that while people are “resistant to change,” they need to give a new chief “a chance” and not “tie his hands” in what he wants to accomplish.
Luzmoor: “Each of these board members told me in a variety of ways, some very explicitly, that we don’t need a Grand Junction style fire chief. We don’t need a career guy who wants to be a manager; we need a guy who goes out on the end of the hose, works with the troops and leads the department. (But) I think we have people who can put out fires and retrieve people with ambulances. What we need is someone who can make this a modern department—somewhat against its own wishes to stay the way it is.”
Luzmoor went on to address the voters again: “Same issue. My statement to the voters is: Do you want to modernize this department, take it to a higher level of knowledge and performance, or not?”
Cole: “A new chief should be familiar with small community volunteer departments, good administrative practices and experience with larger progressive departments. They should hold a vision for their future as a team player, which is compatible with that of our board of directors, who have gathered input from district taxpayers regarding the future of our district as a leader in the emergency services field.”
The election will be on May 3 at the Meeker Fire House from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.