Former Quincy Mayor John Spring, former Fire Chief Joe Henning and a current firefighter and police officer all spoke out against a proposed ordinance to consolidate the power of hiring a new police or fire chief to Quincy’s mayor.
Spring said the proposal “will have damaging consequences for the city” that would “destroy the confidence that the selection of these two department heads is done with impartiality and strictly based upon who the best candidate is” and “goes against the theory that commissioners currently make these selections, without any conflict of interest, any appearance of impropriety. This proposed amendment will practically force, the chief of police and the fire chief to always feel pressured to satisfy the mayor’s wants and desires in fear of losing their position. Just think about how dangerous that is.”
Along with opposing the idea that the appointment would become political, Spring also addressed a complaint that the more than $11,000 spent during the recent search to find a new fire chief was too expensive. That search led to the selection of Bernie Vahlkamp, a 24-year veteran of the Quincy Fire Department, as chief in July.
“For the idea that this proposed amendment was brought about because of the commission spending too much money on the previous selection of the fire chief is absurd,” Spring said. “The board of fire and police commissioners has always used the expertise of the online Fire Chiefs Association in the Illinois Police Chiefs Association, their assistance and knowledge is invaluable to the process, so please don’t tell me that this proposed amendment was the result of $11,435.”
Along with being a former mayor, Spring was also a member of the city’s Police and Fire Commission and has been a member of the Illinois State Police Merit Board, who performs a similar role as the local commission for the ISP.
Henning, who retired as fire chief in July, said the current process “works well and removes partisanship from the selection process…that allows for the selection of the best candidates for police and fire departments by the Commission. They invest a lot of time and effort to understand Fire Department operations, promotion and disciplinary issues, and the leadership needs that exist within the departments in the work hard to address those. Please allow the chiefs to managed in a manner that does not require them to be concerned about the next election, or the concern of offending a politician.”
Henning added that the mayor is more involved than ever in the selection process and the length of term of the chief’s appointment has already been reduced from five to three years.
QFD Captain Jerry Mast, who is also president of Quincy Firefighters Local 63, had the sharpest criticism of the proposal.
“This ordinance is blatantly wrong for many reasons, but due to time constraints, I will touch on the most important issue, which is corruption,” Mast said. “The police and fire chief must be removed from politics as much as possible and be able to communicate the truth of any public safety situation to the public without fear of termination. A chief cannot work truthfully or transparently for the public if he constantly fears termination, because what he tells the public may not fit the political agenda of the mayor or the City Council.”
“For example, if the mayor wanted to close a fire station or defund the police and the fire and police chief knew that this cut would have drastic repercussions, would the chief risk his job? Would he risk his career, to be truthful with the public? I would hope so. Or, let’s pretend the mayor needs to appoint a new chief. Is the mayor going to appoint the chief that is the best for public safety ,has unmatched integrity, all the credentials and experience needed to protect the city, or does he pick the person that will help him achieve his political agenda.”
Quincy Police Detective Adam Gibson, a nearly 24-year veteran of the department, said he believed the current process “adds to the transparency that the public has demanded in city government in hiring some promotions within these departments…although I may not agree with every hiring promotion decision they make, we have a department of very qualified, and dedicated officers in my opinion, that do a very good job of patrolling the city, investigating crimes and, for the most part, make sound decisions under extreme stress.”
The proposal would keep the three-person commission in place to continue to conduct business for both departments, but just no longer hire the person in charge of each department.
“So I guess this assumption is they are going to pick the officers who get hired for all the way up to until the point where it becomes time become chief,” Gibson asked. “And then their decision making ability isn’t good enough to pick the next chief?”
Gibson asked Mayor Mike Troup which aldermen he had talked to about this and Alderman Mike Farha (R-4) spoke up.
“I just said I thought, in regard to the fire chief search, this was expensive,” Farha said. “I’ve always felt that and I’ve always felt that the commission has been a problem and, at times, your members (speaking to Gibson and QPD) have supported some of the problems with the Commission so I’m not upset about the Commission. But I think it’s naive to think that commissions aren’t political. Every one of the individuals along the way have political affiliation. It’s not a matter of politics for me. But I still think the chief executive, that the public voted, for has a right to say who the chiefs are.”
Following the opposition of the four speakers, Director of Administrative Services Jeff Mays then defended the proposal. by saying the mayor has the authority by statute to supervise all city employees and “most” cities in Illinois allow the mayor to select their chiefs.
“The Chief Executive Officer of the city shall perform the duties as may be required of him or her by statute ordinance, he or she shall have a supervision over all executive officers and employees of the cities, and shall have the power and authority to inspect all books, records pertaining to city affairs,” Mays said.
Mays said with QPD and QFD making up half of the city’s manpower and two-thirds of the budget, the mayor and council should be the ones with final say over who runs those departments.
“Our proposal exchanges the exclusive appointment, removing authority of the chiefs of fire and police departments from the Commission, and gives it to the mayor, with the advice and consent of this council,” Mays said.
“This ordinance is the only way you’re going to have that input is envisioned by the statute is envisioned by the ordinances envisioned by the rules of the, of the Fire and Police Commission. This is your chance to make it happen.”
The proposed ordinance will have its third and final reading at next week’s council meeting.