PORTLAND — City Manager Mark Rees says he will open the search for Portland’s new police chief to candidates from outside the department.

Rees said his decision does not mean that he won’t consider in-house candidates or that he will subject taxpayers to an expensive and time-consuming national search.

Rees, who started his job July 20 after serving as town manager in North Andover, Mass., said he hopes to present his nominee to the City Council for confirmation in January.

“I’m open-minded. I just want to hire the best candidate for the community,” Rees said after presenting his plan to the City Council’s Public Safety Committee on Tuesday night.

Councilor Edward Suslovic, who chairs the committee, said he invited Rees to update councilors after getting inquiries from residents who were curious about Rees’ plan for filling the post.

Under Portland’s charter, the city manager hires the police chief.

James Craig resigned as chief in July to become police chief in Cincinnati. Craig spent two years in Portland after coming to Maine from Los Angeles. Michael Sauschuck is now Portland’s interim police chief.

At a news conference in late June announcing his departure, Craig praised Sauschuck and Cmdr. Vern Malloch, saying, “Certainly if you look at the great work by my assistant chief and my commander, every one of them could take this department to the next level.”

Craig recommended that city officials look within the department for the next chief. He said the desire for change was not as strong as it was when he was hired.

Rees said he would like to hire a chief who feels comfortable carrying on the programs that Craig implemented.

Those programs included assigning senior lead officers to cover separate sections of the city, starting a youth services division that includes Police Explorers, having athletic programs and plays in the high schools, and hiring a prosecutor to focus on enforcing ordinances that affect residents’ quality of life.

Rees said the position will be advertised locally and nationally by Sept. 26. Applications will be due Oct. 28.

Rees said he will appoint a search committee – composed of the fire chief, the assistant city manager, the human resources director, the communications director, the multicultural affairs director and the police legal adviser – to do a preliminary screening of candidates. That committee will whittle the field to five or six finalists.

A second panel, of residents, city staffers and union members, will interview the finalists and recommend one to Rees.

In addition, Rees said he plans to hire a consultant to create “real life” law enforcement scenarios. Finalists will go through a complex problem-solving and decision-making exercise that might involve their response to a tactical situation or crisis. They will be scored by a panel of police chiefs.

Rees said the process, known as an assessment center, could cost as much as $15,000.

Responding to Rees’ decision to consider candidates from outside the department, Councilor John Coyne said, “My belief is my own, that we have a well qualified candidate in-house.”

Councilor David Marshall said in-house candidates could have an advantage because they are familiar with the programs that Craig started. “My guess is that an in-house candidate will be very competitive with any other candidate that comes forward,” he said.

Suslovic said he supports Rees’ decision.

“I feel we have several excellent internal candidates,” he said. “I think they will compete well, but I also think they should be required to compete.”

On a separate matter, the committee voted 3-0 to reduce the setback provision in the city’s ordinance regulating domesticated chickens from 25 feet to 10 feet.

Committee members said a reduction in the distance between a henhouse and a home would give residents in some of the city’s more densely populated areas the opportunity to raise chickens.

There now are 20 chicken-raising permits due to expire in 2012 and two more being considered for renewal. Only one resident – on Stevens Avenue – has been cited for keeping chickens without a permit and allowing them to run at large, said Mary Costigan, a city attorney.

The committee’s recommendation will be presented to the City Council on Monday for a first reading.

Staff Writer Dennis Hoey can be contacted at 791-6365 or at: [email protected]