FIRE & POLICE
Should outside hires be sought?
The Duluth City Council will determine how future police and firefighting promotions should be handled when it mulls additional changes to the civil service code.
Two competing ordinances will be presented to the council tonight, but due to last-minute changes, they probably won’t be ready for a vote until March 25.
At issue is whether the city should hire only from within when it comes to naming new fire marshals and police lieutenants, or whether it should also consider outside candidates for the jobs.
An ordinance being brought forward by Councilors Sharla Gardner, Jim Stauber and Dan Hartman would return the city to its old practice of exclusively considering internal candidates.
Meanwhile, another ordinance favored by city administration and being carried by Councilor Garry Krause would grant the Police and Fire Departments permission to cast a wider net.
Duluth’s chief administrative officer, David Montgomery, views the decision facing the council as central to civil service reforms enacted last year in hopes of speeding the hiring process and making the city a more competitive recruiter.
“The question is: How does the city hire the best people for residents’ tax dollars? That’s what this debate is all about,” he said.
But Gardner contends there’s a good reason why the city’s founding fathers looked to fill key fire and police positions from within.
“It’s critical, particularly for police, that officers know the culture of the city and its people and also the culture of the department,” she said.
“We need to make sure that supervisors and department members are on the same page and that they trust each other, because they put their lives on the line every day,” Gardner said.
Tom Maida, president of Police Local No. 807, said it’s common practice in other police departments across the state for officer promotions to occur internally. He said Minneapolis, St. Paul, Rochester and St. Cloud all have similar policies.
Fire Capt. Clint Reff, president of International Association of Firefighters Local 101, said he considers city administration’s decision to seek outside candidates “almost a slap in the face.”
“If our city’s employees are not the best and brightest, and if they’re not ready to promote, then maybe we should look at how we’re training people. If we’re doing things right, we shouldn’t need to go outside our department,” he said.
Councilor Linda Krug said that, unfortunately, some folks are drawing false conclusions from the city’s change in policy.
“Personally, I like the idea of opening up promotions. I think it’s important to have a rich, deep pool of applicants,” she said. “But what some people in our Police and Fire Departments hear is: ‘You guys aren’t good enough.’ That’s not the right message. I think having a strong candidate pool makes everyone better.”
Montgomery said he considers having some flexibility a plus for the city.
“We’re still going to do most of our hiring inhouse. We agree there is value to having people in leadership roles who knowthe city, know the organization and know our neighborhoods. But we don’t believe that’s all that matters. Sometimes there is value to bringing in someone with a fresh perspective or with special managerial skills or useful technical knowledge an internal candidate may not have,” he said. “Yes, there’s value in someone coming up through the ranks, but we don’t believe that should be the only consideration.”
Both Police Chief Gordon Ramsay and Fire Chief John Strongitharm noted that there has been a relatively small pool of internal candidates taking tests lately that would qualify them to seek promotions to lieutenant or fire marshal.
Gardner considers weak interest a likely sign of internal dysfunction.
“They’re telling us that not many people are applying. But it’s the job of chiefs and their respective departments to create clear career paths and to encourage their rank and file to develop leadership skills and seek promotion. There are plenty of talented people in both those departments,” she said.
Maida agreed, saying: “I think they need to start looking deeper if they’re not getting enough applicants.”