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Council splits on decision to hire consultant to recruit firefighters

Friday, April 9, 2010 by Jacob Cottingham

After a contentious hour-long discussion among Council members, Fire Chief Rhonda Mae Kerr and city staff, Council members approved by a one-vote margin a modified resolution that would allow the fire department to spend $280,000 on a job recruitment specialist targeting a more diverse workforce as well as advertising and promotion for the positions.


Voting in favor of the contract were Council Members Sheryl Cole, Randi Shade, Bill Spelman and Chris Riley.


The Bernard Hodes Group of Charlotte, N.C. will be getting an 18-month contract for $130,000 with the department plus up to $150,000 for marketing, advertising and other promotions. Kerr said one of the goals of recruitment was a force that was “more representative of the community they serve” 


Chief Kerr told In Fact Daily, “It’s a contract to… develop a strategic plan for recruiting.” There are two ways the department can hire – through the traditional method of entry-level firefighters who pass screenings, interviews, physical tests and cadet school. There are also lateral hires, which allow for the department to pull in experienced firefighters from other municipalities.


She told In Fact Daily, “I am in favor of being successful with this recruitment campaign however we have to get there. I would much rather prefer that we get this done today so that we can move forward, because the longer we delay the longer it will be before that cadet class is in training and longer until they graduate.” The department currently has 58 vacancies and by next spring anticipates having 100 vacancies.


Because it takes 6 months of training before cadet graduation, “If we don’t start until February or March of 2011 the cost becomes the additional overtime we have to spend in order to keep our unit staff.” She estimated that amount at $300,000 a month.


Kerr told Council the Austin African-American Firefighters Association sent her a letter saying that it supported the department taking this initiative.


Council Member Laura Morrison was the first to ask Kerr some questions. Saying the city “had the opportunity to make great leaps” in regarded to diversity, she said it’s time to take “the big step” of bringing in an outside company but wanted to make sure that as they detailed the scope of work it “take advantage of the expertise and experience we have internally. “


She wanted to approve just the negotiation of the contract and go through “another body” before executing the contract. She was concerned whether or not appropriate feedback has been taken yet and wondered about the money allocated for marketing. Kerr said the $150,000 for marketing is based on past history and is only up to that amount. If AFD could reach their requirements with a smaller sum, they would save that money.


Mayor Lee Leffingwell told Kerr, “You’re throwing numbers out – $280,000, $150,000 but what the actual item obligates for recruitment is $780,000, correct?” Kerr said it would if the city authorized extensions for the contract.


“What I asked is, it authorizes $780,000,” Leffingwell cut in.


“Up to 780,000 if we execute the additional agreement each year, which we would not do if it were not successful,” Kerr responded. 


“Well, that’s extra information and I asked you if it authorized up to $780,000 and the answer is yes,” the Mayor said.


Council Member Randi Shade then stepped in, wondering if it was going to be too much to ask that the Fire Department to come back after 18 months and get authorization for any extension rather than just making that decision internally as the motion would allow. Kerr said this was something she could work with.


Council Member Bill Spelman wanted to know why a third party was needed. Kerr said, “We have tried for 10 years without any significant result. None of us are experts in recruiting or marketing and developing ads and identifying where those targeted marketing.”


Leffingwell asked, “You’re saying it’s hard to get people to work for the AFD, the highest paid Fire Department in the state?”  He also wondered why the department wasn’t capitalizing on its “new tool” of lateral hiring.


Council Member Sheryl Cole didn’t share those concerns. “I am well aware in this city of the issues we’ve had with our public safety departments in terms of diversity and recruitment,” she said. “I think right now, we have a particularly egregious problem with our hiring of female firefighters and their promotion. And there have been several, well-known, documented situations with female firefighters and very egregious circumstances. Because of that I respect Chief Kerr’s courage to come before this Council and ask us to take a new approach so that we can make a difference.” She said it was time that the Council “put its money where its mouth is,” in terms of diversity. 


Mayor Pro Tem Mike Martinez, a former firefighter, said while he was glad to hear the Austin African-American Firefighters Association had supported the plan, he said “there’s still work to do.” The Hispanic Firefighters Association and Local 975 firefighters still have some questions and concerns, he said,


Martinez said he had concerns about expenditures such as this but acknowledged “we can’t not do anything.” He said hiring pre-certified officers had a significant impact on the police department 15 years ago when it was making efforts to diversify its workforce and agreed with Morrison that negotiations be approved but execution delayed and made a motion to delay execution until after more meetings, and going before the Public Safety Commission.


Spelman said going through the Public Safety Commission would delay the recruiting class, potentially costing the city $300,000 per month. Martinez responded, “I just want to point out, this $300,000 is not a fact, it’s a guess.” He said that overtime was actually less expensive than hiring full-time employees.


Despite their misgivings, Shade made a motion, quickly seconded by Cole that AFD move forward with negotiation and execution but cap the amount spent at $280,000 not allowing the contract extensions unless Council approved them.


Chris Riley cast the swing vote saying, “if we can make real progess for that amount it will be worth it.”

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