Firefighter competes for old-guard seat

09/06/2018

This November marks the second contested election for the Stinson Beach Fire Protection District board in the last three decades, a history that two incumbents up for re-election remember firsthand.

“I think of this as a friendly horse race—a little competition never hurt anybody,” said Will Mitchell, an East Coast native who has lived in town since 2014. This fall, he will compete for one of two seats against longtime board members Peter Sandmann and Marcus White, who have 70-plus years of combined experience on the board.

“I think very highly of both of them, have a great deal of respect and admiration for them,” Mr. Mitchell said. “But everyone also seems excited about having someone young joining the board.”

Mr. Mitchell works remotely for a small solar company and has a newborn and a 3-year-old at home. He said his work with the district has been one of the most rewarding experiences in his life, and that having an active volunteer sit on the board would benefit everyone.

But Mr. Sandmann, an attorney, and Mr. White, a retired postal service worker, argued during a joint interview last week that the upcoming decisions were best made by the old guard. “We have the institutional memory that the other board members don’t have,” Mr. White said.

The board’s primary duty is to handle the district’s funds, making decisions about new equipment, training and hiring. Though technically a volunteer department, the district receives funding from property taxes and employs a full-time chief and a host of part-time employees to cover night and weekend shifts. 

All three candidates agree about one fact: the role of the fire district is changing.

Mr. White, who first joined the board in 1979 and served as a volunteer firefighter from 1974 to 1999, said the volume of emergency calls in Stinson Beach has ballooned during the course of his time at the district, from one call a week to one a day. The vast majority of those calls—80 to 90 percent, he estimates—are medical.

Mr. Sandmann, who has also served on the board since the early '80s, described how increased tourism in Stinson Beach has coincided with a trend toward fewer full-time residents and more aging volunteer firefighters.

“The district is going to need to move into a more professional, medical, firefighting organization in order to address the huge increase in the number of calls. We get thousands and thousands of people here on the weekend—Stinson Beach has been discovered,” Mr. Sandmann said. (A seasonal emergency team, Medic 97, currently helps fill in where the volunteer team falls short.)

All three candidates share priorities for the next term, including funding another employee position, possibly with money generated by the proposed increase in the transient occupancy tax. They all would like to build or secure a more comfortable place for employees and volunteers to sleep during overnight shifts, and upgrade the firehouse to provide more space for today’s larger trucks. Hiring a new chief, should Kenny Stevens retire, may also come before the board in the next four years.

Mr. Mitchell, who serves on the district’s recently established water rescue team, highlighted the importance of high-quality training for employees and volunteers, increased coordination with other emergency personnel in the area, and the formalization of a five- to 10-year strategic plan.

Both Mr. Sandmann and Mr. White expressed full support for Mr. Mitchell, and said they hoped he stayed in the community in the long term, working his way up to a spot on the board.

But for Mr. Mitchell, whose wife grew up in Stinson Beach and owns a business here with her family, it is exactly that perspective—of a young parent—that makes him a good candidate. He said he is uniquely optimistic about the future of families in the area. “For every person that leaves,” he said, “we have youngsters coming, excited to get more involved in the community.”