Mayor Carolyn Kirk Monday said the city's personnel consulting firm, Municipal Resources Inc., is preparing for submission to the City Council tonight a memo that would "lay to rest" questions whether the nominated new fire chief, Michigander Eric Smith, has the management experience required in the ordinance written to govern the chief search.
The questions first came from members of the council's Ordinance and Administration Committee last week after Smith had already signed the contract that, once ratified by the council, would give Gloucester its first permanent chief in more than three years, at a salary of $113,548 per year plus $10,000 in moving expenses and other amenities.
Smith is deputy fire chief in Westland, Mich., and according to his resume, has had that position, second in command of a department in a city more than twice the size of Gloucester, since October 2011. He also served as battalion chief for the previous year — which, on paper adds up to about two years of deputy chief or higher, assuming a battalion leader equates with deputy chief.
The dispute centers on whether Smith also has a third year at that level, as the January 2011 ordinance requires, opening avenues for application beyond the trail of department veterans who've traditionally worked their way up the ranks to the chief's position under Civil Service guidelines that have historically limited the job to local contenders.
Voters in a referendum in 2009 emphatically decided to take the police chief's selection out of Civil Service — effectively creating a mandate for opening the leadership positions to outsiders for the fire department as well.
In an email, City Solicitor Suzanne Egan said, "First of all, Deputy Smith does have the three years experience required."
"He held the position of acting battalion chief prior to becoming battalion chief, so he does have the time," she said. "The only issue is the equivalency; MRI and the (search) committee evaluated the command structure of the Gloucester Fire Department and the Westland department and, on the basis of rank, supervisory roles, responsibility, etc., it was determined the deputy chief's experience matched the required experience."
Still, Smith's resume does not mention the year as "acting battalion chief," and a number of councilors have expressed doubts about the wisdom of beginning the precedent of hiring outside the department with any lingering uncertainty as to whether the nominee meets the criteria in the ordinance.
"I'm concerned that (Smith) shouldn't have been in the running in the first place," said Ward 2 Councilor Melissa Cox. "How many people didn't apply because they didn't have the qualifications? Maybe we should scrap this selection (and start over). We could encourage (Smith) to reapply."
"The burden is on MRI to come before (the council's Ordinance and Administration committee) and the Council so we get their clear guidance on whether and how Deputy Chief Smith meets the experience criteria of the ordinance so we can then decide if he is qualified," said Councilor Bruce Tobey.
"I was going to vote no," said Councilor Sefatia Romeo-Theken, who chairs the O&A Committee. "The credentials are not there. I need proof, and I need it from MRI. Don't give me someone I can't vouch for.
"You took it out of Civil Service, this is not what you want," she added.
Two other councilors, Robert Whynott and Greg Verga of Ward 5, have also expressed serious reservations, leaving them disinclined to vote for Smith, who needs a simple majority of five votes from the nine councilors.
The uncertainty of Smith's qualifications also feeds into a rift between traditionalists across the city, on the Council and especially in the Fire Department, and reformers from the mayor to voters who approved the referendum to allow the selection of a new police chief from outside the ranks as well.
Michael Lane has been the interim police chief for three years, and remains in that post despite essentially "retiring" at the end of May. The non-civil service selection process for a police chief is in the formative stages, while Lane presides over a department that has made relative peace with the mayor's office, in contrast to the Fire Department, which has had a stormy relationship with City Hall for years.
Indeed, after a contingent of uniformed firefighters turned their backs to Kirk as she made brief remarks during the Memorial Day event at the World War II Memorial, Kirk demoted the acting chief, Deputy Steve Aiello, who had participated in the back-turning.
To fill for Aiello, who had been a finalist for the permanent job, Kirk brought in Robert DiPoli, the retired chief of the Needham Fire Department who was matched with the city by MRI, a New Hampshire firm that has provided after incident reports as well as personnel resources to the city during Kirk's three terms.
The dispute over Smith's credentials erupted after lengthy consideration of candidates by MRI and a search committee appointed by the mayor. Neither the consultant or the search committee raised red flags over Smith's qualifications.
But once questions arose, Kirk decided to slow the pace of confirmation, and she asked the council to cancel a special meeting that was set for last Wednesday to take the contract from and submit it to the O&A for vetting.
By regular schedule, the council will get the Smith contract for chief and refer it out tonight. The O&A Committee is scheduled to meet next Monday night, with a Smith confirmation vote, at this point, expected June 26.
Richard Gaines can be reached at 978-283-7000, x3464, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.