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After hearing firefighters’ complaints, Council postpones decision on chiefs

Friday, May 15, 2009 by Michael Mmay

Fire Chief Rhoda Mae Kerr appeared before city council yesterday to ask for approval to hire five assistant fire chiefs. The department has been making do with only three chiefs since last year, although the department is already authorized to hire one more. Council, however, would have to give permission for another hire, which would end up costing the department an extra $10,000 in salary for the next fiscal year.


The goal of the change, as it was framed to Council, is to make the upper management of the department more diverse. Kerr would like to put Matt Orta, who is Hispanic, and Richard Davis, who is African American, in the Assistant Chief role. And she would also like to appoint Harry Evans, who is white.


Several firefighters showed up to protest the change, arguing that it was not fiscally responsible in the current budget climate, and that other employees were more qualified for the positions. Kerr reached into some lower ranks for the hires, clearly rankling some firefighters. Battalion Chief Palmer Buck, for one, argued that this was “unneeded management” and would “take firefighters off the street.” He also questioned why one of the 40 or so battalion chiefs weren’t considered for the job.


Kerr responded that this change would not affect front-line firefighters. Rather, one management position would be upgraded to an assistant chief position, which would cost $10,000. As for hiring from lower in the ranks, she said, “Admittedly they are green and they are young but that’s part of the plan,” she said. “Some things are not getting done and there is not that guidance, that mentorship that comes from more experienced chiefs helping younger ones.”


Civil rights leaders Reverend Sterling Lands and local NAACP president Nelson Linder spoke in favor of the changes. Lands said the community is ready for a “new face” for the department. And Linder said the city has historically had the attitude to “keep Austin for white people.” He praised Kerr and said the change was about “inclusiveness and equal opportunity.”


Council Member Sheryl Cole told Kerr that “you have a difficult task, and I appreciate your effort to diversify the ranks.” She made a motion to approve the request.


However, Council Member Mike Martinez, a former firefighter himself, derailed that motion, which he said was based on the premise that members were “not embracing diversity if you don’t vote for this.”  He praised the candidates for the job, whom he knew personally, but said he had “issues with the process.” He said he didn’t see a reason to “rush forward” with this vote, considering that the city needs to cut its budget.


He made a substitute motion to postpone the vote until June 18, after Council had heard what kinds of cost cutting measures the Fire Department, and the other city departments, were proposing. The departments are expected to propose budget cuts in two weeks.  Council Member Randi Shade wanted to know why the delay needed to be so lengthy, and after a short discussion Council Member and Mayor Elect Lee Leffingwell added a friendly amendment to postpone until June 11. The motion passed unanimously.

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