Fearless prediction: Police/Fire Chief ordinance won’t pass Monday night

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Deals get done in many forms and in many places.

Lunches … golf … beers … board rooms … back rooms …

They don’t get done when little work is done on the front end, and most of the people involved are blindsided.

The idea of giving the mayor the sole power to hire the next police and fire chiefs pretty much came out of the blue. Alderman Mike Farha (R-4) tried to take the bullet but was rather unconvincing about it.

If Mayor Mike Troup and Director of Administrative Services Jeff Mays thought this was going to just slide through, they made the worst miscalculation since the navigator of the Titanic.

Titanic (1997) Paramount Pictures

The timing was terrible. Bernie Vahlkamp, a well-liked veteran of the Quincy Fire Department, was named fire chief in July. Rolling this proposal out on the heels of his promotion certainly makes it look like somebody didn’t get their way with his selection.

The criteria already had been changed for the mayor to have a more active role in the hiring process (example: the stakeholder meeting he organized). Also, both the police and fire departments were encouraged to look outside the ranks for new leadership. External candidates certainly should be considered, especially if a department has major problems, but that doesn’t seem to be the case now with either department (although both have had issues in the past, but haven’t we all).

I also was told an external candidate brought in for the fire chief interview was … um, let’s just say … underwhelming to some involved in the process.

Also, in another head scratcher move: The Police and Fire Commission recommended Vahlkamp, and he was publicly hired. The Troup administration then offered him LESS money than the job advertised. The chief’s salary was increased to entice external candidates but remains lower than most chief positions around the state. Since the lower salary offer was done AFTER the city had already made the announcement, Vahlkamp had the leverage and eventually received the higher salary (Muddy River News is waiting on a response to a FOIA request on the salary kerfluffle).

With that history as a backdrop heading toward Monday’s iceberg, perhaps there is a way to steer clear.

Allowing the Mayor/City Council to have more direct oversight on the police and fire departments and their chiefs besides just the power of the purse isn’t a terrible idea. It has merit. Perhaps it would help to add a Democratic alderman and a Republican alderman to the Police and Fire Commission when going through the hiring process of a new chief.

However, dropping this bomb on a Friday afternoon while giving most of the aldermen, the Police/Fire Commission or either chief little advance notice to discuss in advance probably did enough damage to scuttle the thing. Opponents of the proposed ordinance have done an excellent job of messaging and labeling this as a political power grab (if it walks like a duck and talks like a duck …).

A suggestion to save face: Table the damn thing. Create a committee as was done with the Rental Registration Process and study it to possibly create a way to give city officials more oversight in the process. If the police and fire departments don’t buy in, it ain’t happening anyway.

Aldermen I’ve talked to have said the overwhelming public sentiment is against the proposal. Instead of getting calls about sidewalks and potholes, aldermen are actually getting calls about this policy. The employees of the two largest city departments have many friends and family members.

It won’t pass Monday night.

Whether it completely dies or lives on in a true attempt to save it in some way, shape or form, is another question.

J. Robert Gough is the publisher/GM of Muddy River News

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