By Jeff Gallatin
A proposed charter amendment proponents say would make it easier for Bay Village to take part in a Westshore-based regional fire group is drawing fire because opponents say it takes the police and fire chiefs out of the civil service classification, leaving them open to political appointment.
As the charter review commission nears deciding on its final recommendations, the proposal, which would declassify the chiefs jobs and take the jobs out of civil service, continues to draw objections from representatives of both departments. Both police and fire representatives say the current system works well and that the proposed amendment would leave the positions subject to political moves. Proponents say it’s designed to make easier a probable transition by the city from a city fire department to a Westshore fire district authority or district.
Commission Chairman Don Zwilling told members at the July 2 meeting that he would like to have the final proposals to them in time for review and a final vote at the July 16 meeting. If the commission recommends a proposal, it would then go to Bay Village City Council for consideration of whether to place it on the ballot. For any of the measures to go on the November 2012 ballot, City Council, which is currently in summer recess, would have to call a special meeting to consider the matters, since there is a mid-August deadline for getting proposed charter amendments to the Cuyahoga County Board of Elections in time for the November election.
Both police Chief Dave Wright and fire Chief Chris Lyons said the move opens the door to potential problems for the city and its safety forces.
“This idea comes up every 10 years when they review the charter,” Wright, who joined the Bay Village police in 1980, said. “It was a bad idea in 1982, it was a bad idea in 1992, it was a bad idea in 2002 and it’s still a bad idea in 2012.”
Wright said the move would open the door to making the police chief’s job a political appointment.
“We have a strong department in the city and have had one for years,” he said. “If I walked out the door tomorrow, we have good candidates to succeed me who have been trained in command and who know the city, their community and the people in the department. It opens the door to having an outside person made the chief, and I would only advocate bringing in an outside chief in a community like Bay Village when there is corruption or problems, and we don’t have that here. It also opens the door to making it a political appointment, whereas the civil service process is a professional test.”
Lyons said he understands the need to prepare for a regional fire district, but echoes Wright’s sentiments.
“Civil service maintains the professionalism of the department. What happens if we’re not in a regiona l fire district or we go to it and then go back to a city-run department?” he said. “You want to make sure the citizens get the best possible person to run the department.”
Brandon Dimacchia, head of the Bay firefighters union, also expressed concern about possible effects of the change if it is approved.
“By moving the the fire or police chief’s positions to an unclassified one, you may have decisions that become politically motivated, rather than safety motivated,” Dimacchia said. “If the goal is to be open to regionalization of the fire department, I feel the citizens should decide first if they want that or not. Do they want to keep a personalized service or move to a more generic one with unknown cost savings?”
Mayor Debbie Sutherland said she understands the chiefs’ concerns, but maintains she is responsible for getting the best possible service for the city.
“I’m responsible for the big picture for the city and providing the best services, which in this case likely is going to the regional fire grouping,” she said. “This move makes that easier; it is not designed to hurt the chiefs, but make that move easier to accomplish. To have a regional leader, we have to do this, and you’re going to see other cities in the regional fire do this.”