Eric Smith, deputy fire chief in Westland, Mich., is about to become the first permanent fire chief Gloucester has had in more than three years.
And for all of the very legitimate disputes over qualifications and other issues, it is indeed "a new day for Gloucester," as Mayor Carolyn Kirk crowed after Smith's City Council confirmation on a 6-3 vote Tuesday night.
So, despite the lingering questions — and a need for city officials to take several long, hard looks back at how this search process virtually unraveled at the finish — it is time to look forward and recognize that, on many counts, Smith promises to be precisely the kind of chief Gloucester and its Fire Department need.
The fact that he has served in a comparably-sized department that covers a much larger city — Westland is a community of 84,000 — and the fact that, as its sole deputy, he is the No. 2 man leading the department, quite different from the leadership duties of the four Gloucester deputies, who are still part of the rank-and-file firefighters' union — all bode well for Smith taking up the post as Gloucester's permanent chief. So does the fact that he posted the top score on the assessment center's chief tests, besting, at that point, five other semifinalists, search committee members have confirmed.
But most of all, the fact that he brings a fresh set of eyes — with no apparent ties to Gloucester or its Fire Department — and a fresh approach to the job through an obviously different department structure makes him an ideal candidate to lead the reforms that this department desperately needs.
City Councilor Bob Whynott said he would never vote for an outside candidate, saying that firefighters who work their way up the ranks deserve a chance to be on top. He's right — and they did have a chance. But they aren't entitled to it, either, as Whynott's myopic view suggests. In fact, the decades-long Civil Service policy of letting firefighters work their way up the ranks, perhaps take a turn as chief for a couple of years without making any waves, and then retire at a chief's pay seems, in part, what's allowed the department's problems to fester in the first place.
So, is all well?
Hardly, and there are some basic steps that Mayor Kirk and the council should now take.
Revise this search ordinance. It became downright embarrassing to see the mayor, City Solicitor Suzanne Egan, and representatives from Municipal Resources Inc. all trying to talk their way around the requirement that a candidate "shall" — not should, or ought to — have at least three years' experience as a "deputy chief or higher." The council must rework this ordinance to allow for "equivalent experience," recognizing that different departments are structured differently across the country.
Sever all ties with MRI. The consultant's bungling of this search — citing even a stint as "acting battalion chief" that Smith himself didn't include on his resume to get past the experience mandate — destroyed MRI's credibility in Gloucester once and for all. Multiple "corrections" by the company of draft reports on the 2007 Lorraine and 2011 Pleasant Street fires were troubling enough. MRI's handling of this search should be the third strike.
But as city leaders wrestle with those issues, firefighters should follow last month's words of chief's search finalist and Deputy Chief Steve Aiello, who classily encouraged his troops to welcome and work with the new chief. That, above all, is what must happen — so that Smith and the department can find solutions to the closed fire stations and the contract issues that have shortchanged residents on public safety for far too long.
Welcome, Chief Smith. You have some difficult tasks at hand, but we can only hope you get the support you need to get the job done.
The Fire Department and Gloucester's residents deserve nothing less.