Friday, May 24, 2013
PORTLAND – The city is reopening its nationwide search for a fire chief because officials' preferred candidate withdrew before they could offer him the job.
The do-over is expected to add at least $8,500 to a process that has already cost the city more than $20,000.
"This is one of the most important positions in (city) government. We want to get it right," said Michael Miles, Portland's human resources director.
The city has been looking for a fire chief since Fred LaMontagne retired in April. LaMontagne was the fire chief at the time of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and became the city's emergency management director afterward, beefing up communications and emergency policies.
A nationwide search for his replacement drew 55 applicants. Five finalists were brought to Portland for face-to-face interviews and assessment tests.
Only one emerged as a favorite, Miles said, and he withdrew his application for personal reasons before the city could make him a job offer.
"There was no consensus the remaining four were strong enough to be the finalist," he said.
The new deadline for applications is Aug. 31. City spokeswoman Nicole Clegg said it could be two more months before a new chief is chosen.
The five finalists -- all of them men, one from Maine -- visited Portland on June 28 and 29. They spent the first day with two separate interview panels, and spent the second day participating in an assessment center that tested their responses to emergencies.
Clegg said each candidate received a numerical score for the assessment center, which tested applicants on a half-dozen scenarios. She would not release the scores, even with the candidates' names redacted.
The two interview panels were asked not to rank the finalists.
Members of the panels were reluctant to speak on the record Monday because of confidentiality agreements they signed with the city. Several were surprised by the city's decision to reopen the search.
"I'm disappointed to hear they have to do this again, given the expense," said one panel member, Lt. John Brooks, president of Portland Firefighters Local 740, which represents about 250 firefighters, EMS and communications workers.
The city allows interview panels to ask only certain questions and to comment only on the strengths and weaknesses of each candidate, rather than rank them.
Miles said each panel asked 18 questions that had been approved by the city's staff. "We were pretty careful about the questions we asked," he said.
He said the interview panels and the assessment center failed to produce an acceptable second choice.
The city paid the Massachusetts-based MMA Consulting Group about $13,300 to operate the assessment center. It spent an additional $7,200 on travel expenses for the candidates to come to Portland.
The city's next fire chief will oversee a department of nearly 250 employees and a $16 million annual budget. Portland has 66,000 residents, and its population swells to about 150,000 during the workday.
Among the priorities for the new chief will be working to increase the diversity and cultural awareness of the work force, and finding operational efficiencies.
The chief also will be expected to improve the image of a department that has been battered by two high-profile accidents involving the city's $3.2 million fireboat.
Last year, the boat hit an underwater object near Fort Gorges, sustaining $38,000 worth of damage. Twelve civilians were aboard at the time. In 2009, the boat hit a ledge in Whitehead Passage, the channel between Peaks and Cushing islands, sustaining $90,000 worth of damage.
City Manager Mark Rees has said the new fire chief will also be directed to reduce overtime costs for the department.
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