City Councilors won't review Mayor Carolyn Kirk's controversial pick for fire chief until next week, and won't vote on whether or not to confirm him until nearly the end of the month, according to a new timeframe that emerged Wednesday as questions continued to swirl around nominee Eric Smith's qualifications for the post under the city's search ordinance.
Kirk Wednesday cancelled a special City Council meeting she had called for last night to formally present councilors with her appointment of Smith and his contract, which he has signed for a salary of $113,548 plus $10,000 moving expenses and other amenities.
She called off the meeting a day after councilors said they believed Smith's leadership experience didn't meet the ordinance requirements; Kirk maintains his experience is "equivalent" to the ordinance requirements.
If the council grants its approvals, Smith, currently the deputy fire chief in Westland, Mich., would take over as Gloucester's new permanent chief July 1. Until then, the city's Fire Department is being led by new acting chief and retired Needham Fire Chief Robert DiPoli, who took on that role when Kirk ousted previous acting chief Steve Aiello on Monday.
The meeting canceled Wednesday night had just been scheduled Monday, when Kirk asked the council for the special session with an eye toward bringing Smith's appointment before the full council for confirmation next Tuesday.
In her Monday letter to councilors, she said the accelerated schedule would keep the appointment moving "in the urgent manner that is required."
Wednesday, she changed that schedule. This time, Kirk said, she'll submit the appointment at next Tuesday's regular Council meeting, with the confirmation vote on June 26.
In a Wednesday letter to the Council, Kirk said the administration wanted the appointment moving quickly because of recent "turmoil" within the department. But DiPoli, she states, has matters well in hand. She added that the administration now wants to give the council subcommittees the time they need to review Smith's appointment and the pending contract.
"So as not to rush the process and the ... reviews, the administration whishes to cancel (Wednesday's) special meeting of the City Council," her letter states.
Kirk did not return several calls Wednesday seeking comment on this story.
Ward 5 City councilor Greg Verga said Wednesday he's not sure whether the change will make any difference.
"Two weeks from now doesn't leave much time," he said.
The latest turn in the fire chief's search — now more than nine months in the works — came Tuesday, when, after Kirk called the first meeting, members of the council's Ordinance and Administration subcommittee said they were looking into whether Smith's experience as second in command of his Westland, Mich., Fire Department 29 miles west of Detroit meets the requirements of Gloucester's fire chief search ordinance.
Smith, who has served in the department since 1991, was promoted to being a battalion chief in 2010, and became the department's only deputy chief last year.
While the city's Fire Chief Search Committee named Smith a finalist, his resume, on the surface, places him a year short of the ordinance's leadership experience requirement.
"The fire chief shall have an associate's degree in Fire Sciences or related field and hold a minimum rank of deputy chief or higher for a minimum of three years in a fire-fighting environment," the ordinance states.
Kirk has said that Smith has the experience needed. His department, she said, has a different rank structure and has additional responsibilities for its deputy chief. Westland's department had three battalion chiefs and one deputy, while Gloucester's has four deputies.
"We're satisfied he has the equivalent experience," Kirk said.
The city's ordinance, said City Councilor Bruce Tobey, provides a reasonable benchmark in that line. Tobey was on the Ordinance and Administration committee when the Council created the ordinance, and he said it's a challenge to apply it to fire departments that have different structures.
Someone could come from a department with an authority structure that doesn't have the "deputy chief" rank, he said, and it's up to the consultant to determine how that matches up.
"That's why there are multiple players who weave it all together," he said.
Verga, however, said Wednesday he's going to ask how Smith became a finalist in the first place. The ordinance says "shall" have three years deputy chief or higher experience, he said, and there isn't a way around that. He said he's going to ask the city's search consulting company, Municipal Resources Inc. of New Hampshire, to explain why it passed Smith's application through.
"We paid for a professional firm and they missed this key part," Verga said. "(Smith) should have been out right off the bat, or there should have been an explanation."
Tobey also said that MRI should come before the council and lay out how it made that decision. MRI said it doesn't talk about its work with clients.
The search ordinance approved by the City Council in January 2011 took the fire chief's position out of Civil Service, and Jason Grow, a councilor at the time, said the idea was to open the process to a wider selection of candidates and to greater public input.
The Council, he said, now has a legitimate question in asking how MRI came to its decision regarding Smith's candidacy and qualification — though he added he hopes the firm can explain any concerns raised by councilors.
While the ordinance has had rough spots through the search process, Grow said, it needed to be specific.
"It needed to be specific because it needed to combat the viewpoint that doesn't allow for the proposition that a community of 28,000 may not have the best candidate within its ranks," Grow said.
Gloucester's Fire department, meanwhile, has its first chief from outside the city in modern times right now.
After Kirk removed Deputy Chief Steven Aiello from his position as acting chief, she appointed DiPoli, also a former president of the International Association of Fire Chiefs, to take over the acting chief's role through June 30.
DiPoli, who started on the job Monday, hours after Aiello's ouster, says he's here to do two things: Conduct an investigation into the Fire Department honor guard's conduct at the city's Memorial Day ceremonies, and to start the process of repairing communication between the firefighters and city administration.
He added that he's going to work with the firefighters to ensure something like the Memorial Day incident doesn't happen again, and to create a smooth transition for Smith.
"I'd like to see good relations," DiPoli said. "I'd like to see people start to talk again and put hard feelings and differences aside for the good of the City of Gloucester."
Steven Fletcher may be contacted at 1-978-283-7000 x3455, or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @stevengdt.