John Simonds, a candidate for commissioner of Vashon Island Fire & Rescue (VIFR) commissioner, has lived on the island since 2009, where he owns and operates his own general contractor business, Island Handy.
In the commissioner race, Simonds is running unopposed, though islander Ron Smothermon’s name is also on the ballot. However, Smothermon has now withdrawn from the race.
Simonds answered a Beachcomber questionnaire about his reasons for running for office. His answers, below, have been edited for clarity and brevity.
Why are you running for commissioner?
I think our island fire district can be much better managed and I would like to help with that, as best I can. The fire district is in worse shape than fire district leadership seems willing to admit, and as a result, in more trouble than most island taxpayers realize.
What do you believe are the most pressing issues facing VIFR right now?
The most pressing issue would be the lack of adequate numbers of on-island firefighters and Emergency Medical Technicians (EMTs), leaving the safety of our island community in jeopardy when life-threatening emergencies occur. The island has way too few firefighters available around the clock and not enough EMTs either. Not enough emergency staff to even assure that all island VIFR BLS ambulance patients get all the way to a mainland hospital. VIFR is dangerously understaffed. This and more has resulted in low morale among VIFR emergency responders, as identified in the 2019 VIFR “Walkowski Report.” There is also the exploitation of some of VIFR’s pro firefighter/EMTs working 24-hour shifts averaging only 30 hours a week (part-time) for next to nothing in pay, benefits, or disability coverage for time loss. As well as fire District facilities that appear to me to be falling into disrepair due to a lack of pro-active and on-going preventive maintenance, cleaning, and repair. The fire district needs to take better care of taxpayer assets.
Joining the board now, with its current make-up, how do you see yourself in terms of collaboration with other commissioners? Do you see yourself in an outsider role?
My goal is to help bring clarity and transparency to fire district issues, while sorting out potential solutions. It is obvious our fire district is struggling at many levels. The 2019 “Walkowski Report” on our fire district problems makes that very clear. And it looks to me like nothing has improved since 2019, at least looking in from the outside. I think my outsider perspective and fire rescue background will be an asset as an island fire commissioner. I just want to see our fire district moving forward to better times. In terms of collaboration on the fire board, that comes easy when the goal is a common one — to have the best fire rescue and EMS response that our small island community can afford. I also intend to make sure that every motion made by a fire commissioner has a second. So that every issue can at least be discussed. Reserving the right to vote as I see fit, at the end of the discussion.
You have been an outspoken critic of VIFR decisions in past years. What decisions by the department are your biggest concerns?
In 2016, the island Fire Board raised the fire chief pay and paid a consultant for a nationwide search for our next fire chief. The board said they were doing this to come up with the most highly qualified candidate possible. Then the fire board appointed a Vashon volunteer fire officer to the Fire Chief position beginning January 2017, instead of a highly qualified candidate. With too many more bad decisions by VIFR management since then to fully cover here.
How would you describe the culture of the Commissioner board and VIFR’s administration, and what about would you like to see change?
The word “dysfunctional” comes to mind. It looks like our fire district has been down so long it is looking like up to VIFR leadership. About all VIFR leadership seems to do with VIFR problems is sweep them under the rug. I see a total lack of focus by the current fire board and fire chief when it comes to taking care of fire district business. The only thing that seems important to this fire board and fire chief is putting away more island fire rescue tax dollars into reserves year after year. I call that fiddling, while the fire district burns.
I think the fire chief and fire board owe island taxpayers some straight-talk on fire district operations, emergency readiness and funding of our island fire rescue. The public trust is earned with good stewardship of island fire rescue tax dollars and making sure those tax dollars are all working well for our community’s fire rescue response. And that public trust is essential to any small fire district, like ours.