The Hermiston and Stanfield fire district boards of directors have a lot of hard work ahead of them if they choose to pursue consolidating and forming Umatilla County Fire District #1 following Tuesday’s defeat at the polls.

Three things needed to happen in Tuesday’s election for the consolidation to take effect. Hermiston and Stanfield residents both needed to approve the dissolution of their respective fire districts as well as vote in favor of the creation of the new fire district. The majority of Stanfield voters supported the dissolution of the Stanfield Fire District, with 365 in favor and 319 against, based on unofficial results from the county. The majority of Hermiston voters, on the other hand, were opposed to dissolving Hermiston’s, with 3,024 opposed and 2,300 in favor. On top of that, the measure to create the new fire district failed 3,421-2,626.

Fire district officials in Stanfield and Hermiston will be meeting with their respective boards to discuss where to go from here. A good place to start would be determining why the measures failed.

Hermiston Fire and Emergency Services Chief Scott Stanton speculated voter education, or, in this case, lack thereof, was the biggest reason for the failure.

A look at the number of votes tallied on Tuesday supports this theory, in part.

The sum of 365 and 2,300 — the votes cast in favor of dissolution of the Stanfield and Hermiston fire districts — is 2,665, yet only 2,626 votes were in support of creating Fire District #1, a difference of 39.

While the formation of Umatilla County Fire District #1 would have failed, regardless, the fact the number of votes in favor of dissolving the two fire districts is greater than the votes in favor of the new fire district is telling. Whether voters didn’t know they had to vote to dissolve their respective fire district and then vote in favor of creating the new one, or they simply wanted to do away with their own fire district and opposed to the creation of a new one, clearly there’s a disconnect somewhere.

While the fact that three separate measures had to pass in order for one result to take place is challenging from a logistical standpoint, there’s still the matter of the rest of the voters who voted no.

If the reason Umatilla County Fire District #1 failed is because voters were not educated, Hermiston and Stanfield fire district board members and officials must accept some of the responsibility for the defeat. Yes, ideally, all voters would read the information pamphlets on the measures on which they are voting before filling out the ballots, but a.) some inevitably won’t, and b.) it’s not enough.

For any measure to pass, proponents must convince voters there is a need for it, especially if property taxes are involved. This goes beyond explaining the rationale behind the measure. Proponents must clearly convey to voters what is going to be accomplished and why the residents need to care — how they will be affected positively if the measure passes and negatively if it does not.

Obviously, the fact that Hermiston residents’ property taxes would not go up if they live in city limits did not impress the majority of the voters enough to sway their decision.

Fire district reformation proponents and officials clearly needed to do more to educate the public, and they should recognize they could have done more, as well. There were, what, two or three public informational meetings about the fire district reformation in the immediate months before the vote? And at least one of them was initiated by the residents and not the other way around. Where were the educational meetings? Where were the signs encouraging people to vote in favor of the measures? Where were the public service announcements and scores of fliers around town? Where was the campaign?

How long have Stanfield and Hermiston fire officials been planning for this?

If area fire district officials don’t intend to abandon consolidation ideas, and they do intend to pursue the matter in another election, they need to put a lot of time and effort in their strategy and be a lot more aggressive the next time around. They have a long road ahead of them.

— Jessica Keller is the editor of the Hermiston Herald. She can be reached at jkeller@hermistonherald.com

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