Less than 12 weeks before Fire Chief Phil Dench retires, the city still hasn't posted ads, let alone taken applications, for the position.
But city officials say the delay comes from the city ordinance that governs it — an ordinance that they say lacks the flexibility it needs to carry such searches now and in the future.
Mayor Carolyn Kirk opened the search on Aug. 17, when she declared Dench's position vacant.
But between taking time to organize a search committee, then getting the committee together, and the time it took the committee to proceed with hiring a consultant to take the lead role in the search — as mandated by the ordinance — the city did not contract with the winning consultant bidder, the New Hampshire-based Municipal Resources Inc,, until last week. And, as also spelled out in the ordinance, it is now up to MRI to post advertisements recruiting applicants for the job, and then to collect and weed the initial applications down to between three and seven candidates to bring in for public interviews.
Despite those factors, Kirk said she's not yet willing to go to what she loosely referred to as a "Plan B."
Right now, she said, she's waiting for a timeline from MRI before making any further plans, and won't consider any backup plan until MRI sets the timeline.
The city's ordinance, however, grants the mayor the authority to hire another interim chief, without requiring council approval. When Dench retires in February, he will have served just a month short of three years as an interim chief after taking the reins from Barry McKay in March 2009. And Dench cannot stay on duty under Civil Service guidelines, since his retirement date coincides with his 65th birthday.
This is the first time the city has undertaken a search for the chief outside of Civil Service.
Former City Councilor Jason Grow, who was instrumental in 2009 for pushing to pull the fire chief's post out from under the state's Civil Service mandates, said previously he feels Kirk should have declared the position vacant as early as last January, when the City Council approved the change and approved the search ordinance.
But Kirk and city Personnel Director David Bain, who heads the search committee, say the six months from August through the end of January would have been plenty of time, except for provisions of the ordinance.
"There's no wiggle room in this (the ordinance) at all" said Bain.
The ordinance, for example, calls for the hired consultant to not only develop and place ads for the job, but to hold public meetings to develop the ads' criteria.
Bain said the ordinance asks the consultant to do much of the work he said the city's personnel department could have done, in house. There are no ways to fast track the process, he said.
"The convoluted nature of the ordinance and the lack of flexibility and reliance on an outside contractor has taken us all by surprise," said Kirk.
Bain and Kirk both said they questioned the ordinance at the time the Council passed it. But Kirk said she was hesitant to veto the measure.
The search, to the letter of the ordinance, runs a little like this.
After the mayor declares the position vacant, the city pulls together a selection committee. That, said Kirk, took time itself, given that two of the members were to be "elected" by the firefighters' union. Also, one of the search committee members was required to be the city's emergency management director, "if such a position exists at that time."
It does, and is held by Deputy Fire Chief Miles Schlichte. But Schlichte declined to sit on the committee, reportedly to leave his options open for applying for the chief's post. And the ordinance, said Kirk, offers no way to replace him.
Then, the search committee and the administration select a recruitment consultant — MRI — to run the bulk of the search. After whittling the candidates down to seven at the most, the company will conduct an "assessment center" and psychological evaluation.
If MRI were to send seven candidates through the assessment center process, that could cost an estimated $5,000 each, Kirk and Bain estimated. And that, combined with the $16,900 being paid to MRI, would have run the city's bill to some $52,000 — with advertising and other costs still to come.
The city's search and selection committee would then hold public interviews before the candidates meet with the city administration for final interviews.
"The mayor doesn't come in until the ninth inning," said Kirk.
The search committee then presents three to five candidates to Kirk's office, and the mayor would then carry out her own interviews — not required to be public — and make her choice. If the mayor, who could reject all of the finalists, and call for an entirely new process, approves a candidate, that appointment would then have to be confirmed by the City Council.
Bain said that, at this point, his panel remains committed to finding the most qualified candidate, not simply rushing the process.
"Otherwise, it's a terrible waste of everybody's time and a lot of money," he said.
He added, however, that the committee will keep track of what works and what doesn't with the current ordinance in light of the upcoming police chief search. The search operates under an identical ordinance — with Police Chief Michael Lane set to step down in May.
Steven Fletcher may be contacted at 1-978-283-7000 x3455, or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @stevengdt.