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Primary election candidates tout experience, spotlight issues at forum

With about four weeks until the primary election, local voters on Thursday got an early chance to meet candidates — some of them, anyway — for three Sequim-area elected positions.

Two of three remaining candidates running for Sequim School Board director, Fire District 3 commissioner and Hospital District commissioner introduced themselves to online audiences and answered questions sent in to moderators at a July 1 forum hosted by the Clallam County League of Women Voters and North Olympic Library System.

The top two-vote-getters in the Aug. 3 primary move on to the Nov. 2 general election.

Forum moderator Linda Benson said the league hopes to host general election forums in person later this year.

“Our hope is by the time you get your ballot, all of your questions are answered,” Benson told forum attendees Thursday.

The league and library system will co-sponsor another forum set for 6-9 p.m. on Thursday, July 8 — available on Zoom at lwvcla.org/candidate_forums and livestreamed at facebook.com/lwvcla.org — for five Port Angeles-area races: Port Angeles City Council positions 1, 2, 3 and 4, and Port Angeles School District position 2. Questions for the candidates can be submitted in advance to info@lwvcla.org; the deadline for questions is 5 p.m. Wednesday, July 7.

Each forum will be recorded and will be made available for viewing shortly after the event on the league’s website at lwvcla.org/candidate_forums.

Sequim School District

Derek Huntington and Rachel Tax, candidates for director-at-large (position 4) for the Sequim School Board, took on questions about the district Thursday; candidate Virginia Sheppard declined to participate, league representatives said, while a fourth candidate, Kristi Schmeck, withdrew her candidacy earlier this year.

Tax, a mother of four, said she has been working online to earn a business degree and works part-time at Sequim Quality Inn & Suites. A Sequim resident for about four years, she said she hopes to approach key issues facing the school district through community outreach.

“We are a community wide school district, which means everyone had their voice heard,” she said.

Huntington, a Sequim resident for the past 25 years and a graduate of Sequim schools, said his experience in Sequim along with advocating for his daughter with special needs gives him a different perspective that other candidates. He said among the top issues facing the district are selecting a good superintendent.

“(Also), the district’s image and trust has been damaged and we need to repair that,” Huntington said.

Neither candidate has previous public office experience.

The candidates were asked their opinion about Critical Race Theory, an approach to studying race, culture and law that has drawn considerable criticism in some academic and politicial circles.

“My understanding is that it is teaching students the good bad the ugly of our history,” Tax said Thursday. “Racism is real we experience it daily, (though) maybe not in Sequim as much.”

Huntington said he hadn’t looked into the subject deeply, but that a board director’s is to help the district “provide a proper education for our children.”

In response to a question about gun violence in schools, Huntington said the district may want to consider security checks of there issues.

Tax said, “Making sure the students feel they are supported is the most important thing in mitigating any violent action that could occur.”

Tax, Huntington and Sheppard are seeking to fill a seat to be left vacant by Brandino Gibson, who declined to run for another term.

Patrice Johnston is running unopposed for the other school board seat up for election; like Gibson, incumbent Brian Kuh declined to run for another board term this fall.

Fire District

Duane Chamlee and Jeff Nicholas offered their thoughts and backgrounds as they vie for votes in the race for Fire District 3/position 1; a third candidate, Sean Ryan, did not participate.

Nicholas served as a naval submarine officer for 30 years and retired as a captain in 2008. After he retired in 2017 from FLIR Systems — a manufacturer of advanced electro-optic camera systems — as Business Development Executive, he and his wife moved to Sequim in 2016.

He said his military and corporate experience would serve him well on the three-member fire district commissioner board.

“I’ve served in a number of disaster ops (operations) or plans director for a number of disasters,” he said Thursday.

Chamlee spent 43 years in fire service including five years as a volunteer firefighter, and 38 years with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection and retiring as a Deputy Chief for Cal Fire/Riverside County Fire Department.

He said he saw his community grow from 40,000 people in 1978 to about 142,000 by 2000 — with the corresponding growth to the fire district calls for service and staffing.

He said his career experience helps him have the perspective from firefighters and management alike.

The candidates agreed on most issues; the one deviation came in their opinion about a 2017 SAFER grant that fire district commissioners and staff applied for but wound up turning down because the district would be forced to cut staff when grant funding ran out.

“That was a difficult decision for commissioners, (it was a) budget driven item,” Chamlee said. “The future budget was simply not available. I feel they were fiscally responsible (in making that decision).”

Said Nichols, “I don’t agree that was a good decision at the time. It does reflect the fact of not having a (strategic) plan. I think a lot of people were stunned.”

Nichols mentioned several times during the forum the district needs a strategic plan, one with “with milestones, reporting requirements, measurements, and it needs to be a living document.”

Asked about key issues with firefighter staff, Nichols said Fire District 3 needs to up its staffing levels.

“Given the growth of the area, the distance between calls, the … distances aren’t getting any shorter,” he said. “There needs to be strategic plan. There hasn’t been one since 2005 and there needs to be.”

Both candidates expressed concern about volunteer staffers — or rather, the lack thereof — at stations in more remote parts of the district. Nichols said retention of volunteers is a problem and that’s primarily because they don’t feel valued; Chamlee said fire districts struggle with the time involved in training newcomers.

Chamlee, Nicholas and Ryan look to fill the seat being left vacant by Mike Gawley, who had served on the three-member fire commissioner board for the past seven years.

Hospital commissioner

In the third forum of the evening, Hospital District 2/commissioner-at large candidates Heather Jeffers and Steven C. Blackham took part; a third candidate, former Port Angeles mayor Karen Rogers, was unable to participate because of a family emergency, forum moderators said.

Jeffers, an 18-year Sequim resident, has worked the past nine years at skilled nursing facilities. A former Sequim School Board director, she said that in addition to her professional experience she’s been a patient advocate for family members.

Her primary goal in her first year on the hospital board would be to develop effective working relationships with other commissioners to see what she could add.

Blackham’s career was spent primarily as a licensed technologist in medical laboratories, from Vermont and California to Bellingham and finally Olympic Medical Center.

“The most important thing we need to accomplish is to maintain financial viability for our hospital , (which) could be a target for a takeover from another hospital,” he said.

Jeffers said she’d like to see the Peninsula offer more services so residents don’t have to leave the area for treatment.

She also said OMC suffers from a significant shortage of staff, particularly physicians.

“It’s brutal out there in this community; it’s a shallow labor pool,” said Jeffers, who noted she worked hard during the COVID pandemic to reduce turnover at her position as administrator at Avamere Olympic Rehabilitation of Sequim. “Really what needs to happen is, we have to have data to know what it is causing the turnover.”

Blackham said the key to retaining staff is the treatment they receive from management.

“Happy workers are those who feel respected for what they do,” he said.

The pair diverged somewhat on one specific medical service. Regarding abortion, Blackham said he believe in the “sanctity of life” and would discourage OMC providing the service, while Jeffers said the topic is worth discussion but shouldn’t be a moral issue but decided based on whether OMC is meeting the needs of taxpayers.

But both indicated they support offering Death With Dignity Act services, and both agreed that being as efficient as possible and controlling costs where applicable is key to making sure OMC stays a public hospital.

Blackham, Jeffers and Rogers are looking to fill the seat longtime board member Jim Leskinovich, who declined to run for reelection. Leskinovich said in a previous interview he would endorse Rogers.

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