Fire board candidates vie in a spirited contest

Joe Ulatoski and Candy McCullough - Courtesy Photos
Joe Ulatoski and Candy McCullough
— image credit: Courtesy Photos

While four Islanders are running this fall to fill two positions on Vashon’s fire board, one race is getting significantly more attention than the other.

Both Candy McCullough and Joe Ulatoski, who are running for position four on Vashon Island Fire & Rescue’s board of commissioners, launched public campaigns — creating websites, collecting donations and handing out buttons bearing their names.

McCullough, a longtime Boeing firefighter and volunteer firefighter on Vashon, was appointed to the five-person board in a 3-0 vote in June. As she completes the term of a board member who moved off the Island, she is running to stay on the board under the slogan “Retain Candy McCullough.”

Ulatoski, a retired Army brigadier general and a founder of VashonBePrepared, has had perhaps the most visible campaign. It kicked off at the Strawberry Festival parade, where he and some supporters marched with “Joe For Vashon” shirts and signs. His yard signs can already be seen along the highway.

Both candidates are making it easy for others to support them with “donate now” buttons on their websites. McCullough said she has collected $375 so far from friends and family, while Ulatoski declined to say how much he has brought in.

The two of them will face off tonight at a public debate at the Penny Farcy Building, along with Deborah Brown and Ron Turner, who are running for position one. The debate begins at 7 p.m.


Candy McCullough

When Candy McCullough was appointed to complete Gayle Sommers’ term on the fire board in June, she stepped down from a 26-year volunteer career at VIFR, where she has been a firefighter, EMT, instructor and ultimately a captain. She has also moved through the ranks over the course of an approximately 20-year career as a firefighter with Boeing, where she is now a fire inspector as well as the secretary for the local union and a union negotiator.

Though McCullough says she’ll volunteer again on Vashon if she isn’t elected to the board, she believes her extensive experience as both a professional and volunteer responder makes her an asset as a commissioner.

“Who better to look at the program and decide what we should spend our tax dollars on than someone who has been in the program?” she said.

McCullough, 53, speaks confidently and smiles often. She throws out department terms and phrases as only a seasoned responder would and freely speaks her mind, but is also quick to crack a joke and even poke fun at herself.

McCullough, who shares a love of swing dancing with her partner, served for five years on the board of the 600-member Seattle Swing Dance Club, three of them as its president.

“The fire service is my passion,” she said, adding that as she gets older and is within a few years of retirement, it’s a good time for her to be a commissioner.

“Now I’m ready for my next challenge,” she said.

McCullough, who remembers a time when all of Vashon’s volunteer responders were from the Island, is clearly passionate about local volunteerism. She pointed out that many volunteers are now from off-Island, and the majority of on-Island volunteers are support staff, meaning they don’t fight fires or aid patients.

McCullough used to respond from her home in Tahlequah and believes increased on-Island volunteerism is the key to having faster response times to outlying areas of Vashon, especially as some roads may fall into disrepair due to a lack of county funding.

“When the real stuff hits, we’re in trouble. That’s my opinion,” she said.

McCullough recently volunteered to be the board liaison to the department’s recruiting and retention coordinators.

“I know what we need, I know what it takes and I know we need more local involvement,” she said.

She is also paying close attention to the upcoming expiration of King County’s EMS levy, which provides half of the department’s funding and is set to expire in 2013. Though a task force is currently working to draft a new levy to put before voters, she said the board faces the possibility of the department losing all or some of its levy funding, and McCullough feels she knows what the department should and should not spend money on.

“With the economy the way it is, that EMS levy is going to be a big deal,” she said.

McCullough, who is also involved with the Vashon Island Fruit Club and puts on monthly swing dances at Ober Park, says she loves to volunteer behind the scenes but isn’t a “drum pounder.”

She acknowledged the fact that Ulatoski, her opponent, is a bigger name on Vashon but said she believes her experience and inside knowledge of the department will continue to benefit the board.

“I’m not a politician, but I am upfront, and I have integrity and the intention to do what is best for the community,” she said.


Joe Ulatoski

Joe Ulatoski, 84, says he’s been accused of being nuts or having a misplaced gene because he just keeps volunteering.

“Some people like to go play golf or go sailing. I’d like to take all this experience and knowledge I’ve accumulated and use it for the community, to make it a safer place and a better place to live and work,” he said.

Upon moving to Vashon a little over a decade ago, Ulatoski soon got involved in Island affairs. As one of the founders of VashonBePrepared, he has worked with the fire department and a corps of volunteers over the last decade to make the Island more prepared for a major emergency such as a large earthquake.

Ulatoski, who has a thoughtful demeanor and civic-minded sensibility, is also a member of the Vashon Rotary Club and was on the board of the Vashon-Maury Island Community Council for about six months before resigning with the rest of the nine-person board last summer. He has also been one of the largest proponents of Vashon’s ferry service, serving on the community council’s transportation committee and lobbying politicians to retain the Island’s service levels. He recently put forward a motion at a community council meeting to send a letter to local lawmakers expressing concerns with the county’s plan to let some Vashon roads fall into disrepair.

Those who know Ulatoski well know that he boasts a 32-year career with the Army. His array of positions include commanding a 6,000-man infantry in Vietnam, acting as the liaison between the White House and the Department of Defense during Watergate and commanding a 13,000-person American community in Germany. He retired in 1978 as a brigadier general.

Ulatoski’s experience since then includes managing a major law firm, a regional real estate company and his own management and consulting company. He tried to retire in 1991, but soon took on an executive position at the Frank Russell Company, where he stayed for another decade.

Now truly retired and living on Vashon, Ulatoski believes he would be an asset to the board as it facea several county- and state-related issues. Like McCullough, he sees the upcoming expiration of the county EMS levy as a top concern. Losing the levy funding, he said, could have a “disastrous impact on Vashon,” and combined with declining county funding for road repairs and budget cuts in the state ferry system, Ulatoski said the department could find itself in a difficult situation.

“We already cannot meet the desired standards for response, it’s nobody’s fault. … All these things that are on the horizon are going to adversely affect VIFR and their ability to go out and help the people,” he said.

Ulatoski believes his leadership skills and experience lobbying lawmakers and working with county officials will aid the department as it attempts to keep Vashon’s funding and services.

“All these things come through King County, so it depends on what your relationship is with King County, how you can persuade them to do something to your benefit,” he said.

Ulatoski, who can often be seen at local meetings and events, said that as a commissioner he would have his finger on the pulse of Vashon. He said the fire commissioners should be more active in the community, and while some of them have volunteer experience with VIFR, his knowledge of Vashon and King County would bring a new perspective to the board.

“(There are commissioners) who know the internal operations of the department. Isn’t it time to get somebody who takes the broader view?” he said.

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