By many counts, it will be a divided City Council and even a divided Ordinance and Administration subcommittee that will decide, over the next 48 hours, whether the city's arduous search for a new fire chief is complete (See new story, Page 1). That means deciding whether current Westland, Mich., Deputy Chief Eric Smith will take the Fire Department's reins effective this coming Sunday, even as St. Peter's statue makes its annual tour of Gloucester's streets.
Today, representatives of the city's Search Committee and Municipal Resources Inc. will explain to the Council's Ordinance and Administration just how and why Smith — who's served as his department's lone deputy chief for the past year, served as a battalion commander for a year prior to that and apparently served as an "acting" battalion chief before that — is qualified under a Gloucester search ordinance that an candidate "shall" have three years of command experience as a "deputy chief or higher."
Then, on Tuesday, the Council is set to either confirm or reject Smith's nomination by Mayor Carolyn Kirk — along with his tentative contract paying him $113,548 a year, plus $10,000 for moving and other transition expenses.
But, as the councilors weigh Smith's experience level, they must also be mindful of another issue: If they do approve Smith as the new chief, they must be certain that it is through a convincing vetting of his experience levels so that, if he does become Gloucester's new permanent chief next weekend, he will have the credibility and support he will need, not be sitting under the procedural clouds still shrouding his appointment today.
Is Smith the best choice to emerge from among the 42 initial applicants and three finalists? By many counts, he is. As the sole deputy in Westland, a city of 84,000, 28 miles west of Detroit, he is his department's clear and independent second in command; Gloucester has four deputies, all part of the firefighters' union, under a single chief. In terms of leadership, that's significant.
Also, Search Committee member Russell Hobbs has noted in a letter to the Times that Smith was tops among all five semifinalists on a battery of assessment center tests that traditionally forms a key part of any search process.
Yet, while Kirk, City Solicitor Suzanne Egan and officials with MRI are going to great lengths to count Smith's time as a battalion chief and acting battalion chief toward his three years' experience, that comes across, as City Council Greg Verga puts it, taking "every effort ... to pound (a square peg) into round hole because that's the end result that's desired." And if Smith's time as acting battalion chief is now being seen as significant, why wasn't that on his resume in the first place? It wasn't.
Look, there can only be one bottom-line goal when this excruciating, now 10-month search is over.
That's to ensure that Gloucester has the best possible chief it can find, and that the new chief — chosen from a fair and clearly delineated process — will have the support to tackle this department's man issues and carry out the kinds of changes that the GFD and Gloucester residents need.
That doesn't come from "fitting a square peg" into a round hole to justify a choice that doesn't meet the demands of an admittedly rigid ordinance. And, after dragging the search out for months, it doesn't come from rushing it through now with lingering questions over qualifications.
It may, once again, mean extending the search to a new accelerated process, aimed at revising the ordinance as needed, keeping the current finalists in the mix if they wish, reopening the search for perhaps 30 days, and going from there.
After all this time, the city, its search committee and consulting firm need to do this right; and scrambling for answers to the lingering questions sure isn't right.