Council approves up to $10,000 to find interim fire chief

Published 6:51 am Wednesday, January 20, 2010

The city of Austin is moving forward with its plan to hire an interim fire chief, despite some opposition from within the department.

On Tuesday, city council approved the allocation of up to $10,000 to find an interim, which the city would like to have done by the end of the month. Currently, fire commander Brian Lovik is filling in as chief in the wake of Dan Wilson’s retirement at the end of last year.

The city will likely use those funds in part to pay the interim chief once he or she is hired and in part to pay an outside consulting firm to help locate suitable candidates.

In fact, the firm, Wisconsin-based RW Management, has already identified at least one candidate, city administrator Jim Hurm said. The Austin Fire Civil Service Commission is scheduled to interview the candidate Wednesday.

Once hired, an interim would be able to work for no more than 30 days, per state law. If a new chief isn’t hired during that time, the city may turn back to Lovik on a temporary basis. Ultimately, the city would like to have a full-time chief in place by late March or early April.

However, some firefighters expressed concerns with the interim plan during Tuesday’s meeting.

Tim Olson, for one, said he took issue with how late the council got started with the process, when he said Wilson told him the city knew of his pending retirement in the summer.

“If we’ve known (of Wilson’s retirement) for seven months, why are we cramming something down everyone’s throats?” he said.

Olson also said the department could manage itself while a permanent chief is sought, rather than having the city pay for an unknown firefighter to come in from outside Austin.

“You want to spend $10,000 and not know what you’re going to get?” Olson said.

Chris Grunewald, who heads the local firefighters’ union, said he doesn’t see the department making much progress if an interim comes in. Instead, he’d rather see people within the department take charge and figure things out.

“We want to move forward,” he said.

Councilman Jeff Austin refuted several of Olson’s claims, saying the council itself only knew of Wilson’s desires in December, though other city staff may have known earlier.

He also said the city will know what it’s paying for, since the civil service commission will be vetting all the candidates, and the council must approve the hire.

Additionally, Hurm said the decision to hire an interim is not meant to imply the department couldn’t handle the situation itself. Rather, he said the interim will provide valuable insight and opinions on the department because he or she will be from the outside and will not have a stake in the eventual hire — the interim chief will not be allowed to apply for the job.

Hurm also said $10,000 is roughly what a full-time chief would make in a month, after considering wages and benefits.