After a contentious election, voters in the Carbondale and Rural Fire Protection District sent a mixed message on May 6, when they selected three candidates for four-year terms on the board of directors.
With 1,720 votes cast in the unofficial count, challenger Carl Smith led the pack with 974, but the remaining two seats will be filled by Michael Kennedy (917 votes) and Gene Schilling (875 votes), both 20-plus-year veterans of the board. Incumbent Mark Chain narrowly missed re-election with 870 votes, while challenger Gary McElwee was only a step behind with 863.
The Carbondale and Rural Fire Protection District provides firefighting, ambulance service and backcountry rescue to 15,000 residents and 320 square miles across parts of Garfield, Pitkin and Gunnison counties. The district has seen considerable controversy since last November, when voters struck down a mill levy measure that would have represented 40 percent of the district’s budget. Critics have questioned the fire department’s use of funds, including the 2012 purchase of a 100-foot ladder truck, while others have defended the expenses as necessary to maintain service and insurance ratings.
The fire district has since launched a citizen task force to make recommendations on how to proceed, while EMT Jeff Wadley organized two “who ya gonna call” meetings to build awareness about the election, inform potential candidates, encourage communication between the community and the fire board. When two challengers stepped forward and all three incumbents chose to run for re-election (there are no term limits), it appeared that the board election itself would prove an early indicator of where the public stands.
As Tuesday evening wore on, however, it became clear that the election would not be cut and dry. Five judges had arrived to count the mail-in ballots around noon, and fire department officials thought there could be preliminary results shortly after the polls closed at 7:30 p.m. The candidates began to gather at the Carbondale station, but by 9 p.m., there was still no news. Chain called it a night while Kennedy, McElwee, Schilling, Smith and a handful of friends, family and department staff waited up for the announcement.
When the judges finally emerged just after midnight, fire officials held a brief private conference with the unofficial results before posting them on the front door. The candidates crowded around to look, then the victors posed for a brief photo before heading home for some much-needed rest.
“I want to thank the people who voted for me and look forward to working with the rest of the board and staff to come up with a plan that best serves our citizens and visitors,” said Schilling after the results were released.
“I’d like to thank everyone that took the time and the interest to vote,” echoed Kennedy. “We have a great fire district and a great bunch of paid staff and volunteers that keep it going, and we intend to continue to do that far into the future.”
Chain, reached the next morning, said he was disappointed at the loss, but hopes the board will be able to move forward and work with the recommendations of the citizens’ task force.
Smith was originally appointed as a member of the task force, but will step down. In a statement released Wednesday, he committed to “diligently work to continue the quality service that the district has historically provided. … This is extremely important, and challenging, particularly in light of our difficult economy.”