The appointment of Westland, Mich., Deputy Eric Smith as Gloucester's new fire chief heads to the City Council for review next week, and the city's chief attorney says he meets the requirements of the ordinance governing the search that found him.
Smith's selection by Mayor Carolyn Kirk as the city's first permanent fire chief in more than three years is the product of the city's first search for a chief outside of the state's Civil Service regulations.
But while the search lasted about 10 months, councilors and residents alike are now questioning whether he meets the ordinance's standards. Councilors say they're waiting on the search consultant, Municipal Resources Inc., to explain how he does.
City Solicitor Suzanne Egan said Friday he has the three years of experience required by the fire chief search ordinance. The Michigan deputy, she said, served as an acting battalion chief prior to becoming a Battalion Chief in 2010. He rose to the department's deputy chief rank last year. The only issue, she said, is whether it's equivalent, and the search committee, and search consultant Municipal Resources Incorporated found Smith's experience is.
"MRI and the committee evaluated the command structure of the Gloucester Fire Department and the Westland department and on the basis of rank, supervisor roles, responsibility, etc. it was determined (his experience) matched the required experience."
Smith's resume states he's held the rank of captain for five years, battalion chief for a year, and began his time as deputy chief in October 2011; it does not note that he had previously been an acting battalion chief.
The city's Fire Chief Search Ordinance, however, mandates candidates have 15 years experience in firefighting and three years as a supervisory "deputy chief or higher."
Because departments across the country have different leadership structures than Gloucester's, Egan said, it's up to the consultant and the search committee to determine whether the experience matches up to the ordinance — and, in this case, they have agreed that it does.
Kirk did not return calls for comment on this story.
The Council will vote to receive his appointment on Tuesday, and likely forward it to subcommittees for review in the coming week. A confirmation vote would come at the council's meeting on June 26.
Councilor and former Mayor Bruce Tobey said Friday that the search committee and consultant should provide their reason.
"The next step is for MRI to provide assurances that indeed Deputy Chief Smith has the required three years senior management experience," Tobey said.
Councilors, meanwhile, have also received a petition signed by 400 residents standing in support of Deputy Chief Steven Aiello and asking the council to overturn Kirk's decision to appoint Smith. The petitioners gave it to the City Clerk's office on Tuesday.
Ward 5 Councilor Greg Verga said that raises other issues.
"I've been trying to explain to people, even if (Smith's) voted down," he said, "it's not like the council can say no to him and yes to Aiello."
The council's vote to confirm, he said, is up or down. The most they can do is reject the appointment, and if they do, he's not sure what that would mean. The appointment, under the ordinance, is made by the mayor — and, last Monday, Kirk ousted Aiello from his role as acting chief for "conduct unbecoming" and showing poor leadership amid a Fire Department honor guard protest action at the city's Memorial Day ceremonies.
Verga, however, said he's also concerned about Smith's qualifications matching up to the ordinance standards. That ordinance, he said, has the three years as a stiff benchmark, and if the qualifications don't match, the Council shouldn't approve it just because of the time spent in the search process.
The chief's appointment, he said, shouldn't be second-guessed and the Council should do what it takes to give legitimacy to the city, department, and the new chief. If that means doing it over, so be it, he added.
"I'm not going to let the process go along just because we've been doing it for so long," Verga said. "It makes no sense to me."
City Councilor Joe Ciolino, however, noted that the Search Committee and MRI vetted Smith's qualifications over several months, and members are confident in their decision.
"That holds a lot of weight as far as I'm concerned," he said.
Ciolino said committee members told him they were well aware of Smith's experience level during the process, and researched it along with MRI. His experience, said Ciolino, isn't a match grade-for-grade, but is equivalent. Every time the committee asked that question, he said, they were satisfied with MRI's answer.
"They're very, very confident," he said.
Councilor Paul McGeary said he's inclined to accept the recommendation and not second-guess the search committee.
"If they thought the guy was qualified and had the equivalent experience, my inclination is not to second guess the search committee," he said.
He's on the Police Chief Search committee, and said that their consultant, BadgeQuest, doesn't pass on people who didn't qualify. The Fire Chief Search ran on the same ordinance as the Police Chief Search. But, he's still looking for MRI's reasons, and says the council will ask them that question.
But, in the end, he said, it depends on how you weigh his experience in his department to the city's Fire Department structure.
"I'm inclined to accept it," he said. "But I want to hear their reasons."
Steven Fletcher may be contacted at 1-978-283-7000 x3455, or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @stevengdt.