With Michigan Deputy Fire Chief Eric Smith up for a confirmation vote Tuesday night, City Councilors stand divided on whether or not they'll support his nomination by Mayor Carolyn Kirk as Gloucester's next permanent fire chief — the first the city would have in more than three years, and the first chief who would be hired from outside the city and outside the grip of state Civil Service guidelines.
Smith faces a review by the council's Ordinance and Administration and Budget and Finance Subcommittee at 5:15 p.m. today in City Hall's Kyrouz Auditorium, with the full council set to vote on the appointment and on Smith's tentative contract in its meeting Tuesday starting at 7 p.m.
Today's subcommittee review and Tuesday's confirmation vote are looming while some councilors are calling Smith's qualifications into question under the city's search ordinance.
The Westland, Mich., deputy chief, they said, is at least a year short of a requirement in the ordinance that the news chief "shall have" three years' experience as a "deputy chief of higher;" Smith's own resume notes that he has served as a deputy chief for just the past year, and served as a battalion chief for another year.
But, Smith passed through search consultant Municipal Resources Incorporated, and the city's eight-member Fire Chief Search committee, which are treating his battalion role and previous time as an acting battalion chief — not noted on the resume — as equivalent experience for the job. And at least one search committee member has confirmed that Smith placed tops on a series of assessment tests, beating out four other semifinalists, including fellow finalist and Gloucester Deputy Chief Steve Aiello.
Ward 3 Councilor Steve LeBlanc said that, if MRI and the search committee are satisfied with Smith's qualifications, so is he.
"It's hard for me to question people who went through the process," he said. "They were more involved than I was, If they say he's qualified, it's hard for me to question that."
He's not alone.
"I needed verification of their process and I got it," said Councilor Bruce Tobey. "Unless the bottom falls out, I'm voting yes."
Tobey said the search process had its bumps along the way, but it was the first time. And at the end of it, he said, Smith is a candidate the council should get behind. Tobey said it's time to commit to a man who went through a rigorous process and came out on top. The ordinance, he said, got the city to a good end point.
In a letter sent to the council, Municipal Resources Incorporated states that Smith has served more than three years at ranks equivalent to the ordinance requirements. The search ordinance states that, while a candidate shall have three years of experience as a deputy chief, the search committee and consultant ultimately determine whether a candidate is qualified.
The MRI letter states that he served as acting battalion chief, battalion chief and deputy chief. And, it states, taking into account the 56-hour work week in Michigan, he has 3.38 years of experience, fitted into a 42-hour week.
"We believe that Eric Smith meets or exceeds all the requirements for the position, has demonstrated his excellent qualifications throughout the selection process, and should be confirmed as the next Gloucester fire chief," the MRI letter states.
Some councilors aren't so sure about that, with Smith needing five votes for confirmation.
"I'm very much undecided on what to do," said Ward 2 Councilor Melissa Cox.
She said she initially thought the process was flawed, but after seeing the MRI letter, she said, approving Smith received a little more plausible.
She said the letter makes him appear qualified for the position, but she's still dissatisfied with the search as a whole. Cox said she'd almost like Smith to reapply and run the search again so that it — and he — would not have clouds hanging over their heads.
"We have a square peg, and every effort being made to pound it into a round hole because that's the end result that's desired, and I think that's a mistake," said Ward 5 Councilor Greg Verga.
Ward 5 Councilor Greg Verga said he's skeptical of MRI's reasoning, especially with the 3.38 years number based on the Michigan Fire Department's extended work week. Also, while MRI takes Smith's time as an acting battalion chief into account, Verga said, that acting slot, he notes, isn't on his resume.
If Smith didn't have three years on his resume, Verga said, he shouldn't have been considered from the start.
"It doesn't matter that (the process) took a lot of work," Councilor Bob Whynott agrees, "It was done wrong and needs to be done again."
Whynott said he won't support an outside candidate. People who pay taxes in town and raise their families here deserve a chance to be on top, Whynott said.
Councilors Jackie Hardy and Sefatia Romeo Theken did not return a call for comment on this story. But other councilors are willing to hear and heed MRI's and the search committee's recommendations.
"The committee was fully satisfied that the three people (including Smith) that were brought forward were good candidates," said Councilor Joe Ciolino.
Ciolino said that if MRI, the search committee, and the city Solicitor Suzanne Egan all say Smith meets the ordinance qualifications — and they have — he'll support him. The alternative, he said, is to run the search all over again
Smith signed a $113,548 per year contract, with $10,000 in relocation costs and other amenities, contingent on council approval. He was one of 42 applicants for the post.
"If (MRI) can make the case that he has the required experience, I'd be inclined to vote for him," said Councilor Paul McGeary. "At this point, I haven't seen proof that he has equivalent experience."
That, he said, is what he's looking to find out on Monday. If MRI and the committee make their case for approval, he said, he'll support the nomination
Steven Fletcher may be contacted at 1-978-283-7000 x3455, or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @stevengdt.