The retirement of Lima Fire Chief Bruce Black sees City Council facing an issue that far too long has been placed on the back burner: No one from outside the department can be considered for the job.
The issue was brought before voters almost eight years ago when they were asked to approve proposed changes to the Lima City Charter, which is the blueprint for how city government operates. At that time, only department members with a rank equivalent to that of a major could take the civil service exam to become a chief.
Voters approved changes in the charter that cleared the way for an expanded pool of applicants, should city officials want to go in that direction. But since then, neither City Council nor the civil service board have taken any action. Thus, Lima remains entrenched in an outdated system that allows it to hire only internal candidates for the top jobs in its fire and police departments.
Multiple ways exist for change.
What we see as a much better system is to take the chiefs completely out of civil service, making them appointees by either the mayor or council. A new chief would then be hired on a contract basis. At the end of that contract, his or her performance would be evaluated for renewal.
Another option would be for council members to allow outside candidates to take the civil service test, which would require no further Charter change. A third option would be to allow voters to select the chiefs.
The bottom line is the applicant pool for such an important job should be as broad as possible. This doesn’t eliminate an internal candidate from being named the new chief. After all, those working inside a department are in tune with its struggles and challenges. They understand the community. Someone coming in from the outside would face a learning curve. However, an outside hire would bring new ideas, attitudes and experiences to the job.
A change also opens the door to possible minority candidates. Right now, no minority will be eligible to interview for the current fire chief’s position given the process currently in place for promotions.
Lima’s goal should be hiring the best people possible for the job while at the same time building a safety-service force that reflects the community’s diversity. To accomplish that, all barriers need to be removed from the charter, including that of outside hiring.
Lima has a relatively new Human Resources Director in Kari Keener. Five of the eight council members have been elected in the past two years.
Such an undertaking would be a bold challenge, but not an impossible one. All they have to do is look at the city of Columbus for evidence that it can be done. In the past year, walls had to be knocked down, but for the first time in Columbus’ history, the mayor was empowered to choose the next chief of police from outside the department.
Several candidates were brought in by Columbus Mayor Andrew Ginther, who involved members of the community in the interviewing process. Ginther then trimmed the field to two finalists — Thomas Quinlan, the interim chief of the division, and Perry Tarrant, a former assistant chief for the Seattle Police Department. Quinlan, the in-house candidate, was named the new police chief.
Most people expect businesses and public entities to conduct broad national searches for top executives.
This is an opportunity for City Council and the human resource director to put their stamp on a major improvement in the city.