Mayor Carolyn Kirk and Municipal Resources Inc., the city's consultant in Gloucester's exhaustive 10-month search for a new fire chief, have done their best to convince city councilors and, yes, residents that Westland, Mich., Deputy Chief Eric Smith qualifies under the city's search ordinance, and that councilors should approve the mayor's selection of him for the chief's job. (See news story, Page 1).
A year as acting "battalion commander," on top of a year as full-fledged battalion chief and a year as deputy chief do theoretically add up to the three years of command experience the ordinance requires — assuming those jobs can be seen as equivalent to a deputy's post.
But the city's ordinance does not include a provision for "equivalent experience," despite the fact that different positions can include different levels of command in different departments across the country.
Of all the questions being raised about Smith's qualifications, the most significant may well be the one posed by first-year Ward 2 Councilor Melissa Cox. Noting that the city's ordinance specifically says the candidate "shall" — not "should," "can" or "might" — have three years' experience as "a deputy chief or higher," she asks: "How many people didn't apply because they didn't have the qualifications?"
While city officials scramble to try to show why Smith — clearly a strong choice given that he placed first on the assessment tests given the five semifinalists — meets the ordinance requirements, Cox suggests that "maybe we should scrap this selection (and start over)."
Painful as it sounds, that's now become a valid option, if only on a fast track.
It's a shame that a 10-month search, fraught with inside bickering over the Fire Department's representatives on the local search committee, is ending with questions over the qualifications of the pending chief. Yet that is indeed where we are. But it would not be fair to Smith or to anyone else to have him take the reins if there are any lingering clouds over whether he should have been a viable candidate in the first place.
Given those issues, the mayor and city councilors — while weighing once and for all on whether Smith's experience meets the city ordinance's demands — would do well to consider Cox's question, and reopen an accelerated new application process, along the lines of the following:
Revise the city's search ordinance to allow for "equivalent experience" to the three-year command requirement at the next City Council meeting, and give the revived local Search Committee the authority to carry out a renewed search if necessary.
Reopen the application process for three to four weeks, allowing other qualified candidates who might have "equivalent experience" but did not seek the job to express interest in the position.
Let the Search Committee - not MRI or a new consultant — handle the applications and contract to carry out any new needed assessments of new candidates.
Retain the list of current finalists — including Smith — with the idea that one or more new candidates could be added to the list.
Finally, reconsider a renewed list of finalists and forward that to Mayor Kirk — hopefully within six weeks.
That process may well lead to the renomination of Smith. And that would be fine, if he remains the best qualified candidate. It may lead to finding a new applicant from inside or outside the department who was wrongly frozen out of the initial search, but could be considered now. That would be fine as well.
The bottom line is for the city to bring on the best qualified chief's candidate it can possibly find, and one who would not take the reins under a cloud of questions or skepticism.
Making a choice clouded with questions is the one choice the council cannot make.