City Council could vote to offer Healey chief’s position

Published 2:41 pm Saturday, June 5, 2010

On Monday, City Council could extend a job offer to a fire chief candidate from outside the Austin Fire Department.

If that happens, and if Michael “Mickey” Healey, a 36-year-old firefighter from Portage, Mich., accepts the offer, it would be the first time the city went outside its own department to find a chief in at least 70 years.

And the local firefighters’ union president said that fact is fine by him.

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“I think getting some new blood in the department is a good thing,” Chris Grunewald said.

Grunewald, who has been with the AFD for five years, watched Healey, along with two other final candidates, interview with a council committee on Tuesday. That committee unanimously agreed that Healey’s interview was best, and Grunewald said he agreed.

“I think he was pretty much above everyone else as far as interviewing,” the union president said.

Grunewald said only time would tell how good a fit Healey would be, but he said coming into the department from the outside would allow Healey to base his decisions on careful reviews of each situation — not on biases drawn from the department’s past.

Part of that past was a rocky relationship with former chief Dan Wilson, Grunewald said. The union president said communication between firefighters and Wilson was not strong.

Maybe in part because of that, the department has had a history of firefighters circumventing command and going straight to council with concerns, according to a report issued by an attorney who analyzed the AFD. The attorney went on to say that such a process actually undermines the department’s leadership.

With that in mind, the committee that interviewed the three finalists on Tuesday made a point of asking how they’d fix this problem.

Healey admitted that it would be unrealistic to expect someone to bring a complete stop to it. However, he noted that he’d strive to have a very “open-door” approach to the job, which he said would hopefully encourage staff to bring their problems to him, not the City Council.

Grunewald said that a good relationship with the new chief is essential in keeping issues in-house.

“If our problem was with the chief, how are we going to solve the problem (by going to the chief)?” Grunewald said, referencing the relationship with Wilson.

Wilson said there was one issue that came up time and time again as a point of argument — firefighters’ schedules, namely whether they’d work 24-hour shifts versus other types of shifts. Other than that, the former chief said his relationships with staff members were solid.

“I didn’t have a problem with anyone,” Wilson said.

Wilson declined to comment on Healey, saying that hiring the new chief is “the city’s issue.”

Ultimately, Grunewald said he and other firefighters will fully support anyone who works hard and establishes good relationships with staff. In Healey, Grunewald said he thinks the AFD has found such a person.

“We’re really excited about what’s on the horizon for the department,” he said.

Healey too has expressed excitement. During his interview on Tuesday, he said he could envision himself establishing a long career in southeastern Minnesota.

“I’m excited about the possibility of working in the city of Austin,” he noted.

For that to happen, council will need to reach a majority vote on extending the job offer. With the three-member fire committee all in support, that means at least one more council member would need to get on board.

The hire would also be contingent on Healey passing both a physical and a psychological examination.