How long is a “temporary” appointment?
Ninety days, according to the Johnson City Charter.
City Manager Pete Peterson confirmed Wednesday that he is subject to the city charter which gives him the authority to make temporary appointments of no longer than 90 days, but his inaction over the past few years is contrary to that mandate.
It has been nearly two years since a new fire chief has been named, the building codes official spot has been vacant for about two years and the last parks and recreation director was fired in early March 2008.
In late February, Peterson appointed Johnson City Fire Capt. Mark Scott as interim fire chief. Scott replaced Mark Finucane, who had been serving as interim chief since Paul Greene’s retirement in 2009. Finucane served in the interim role for one year, and Scott is expected to do the same.
“All sections of the city charter are applicable at all times, thus my appointments are subject to this requirement,” Peterson said Wednesday in an emailed response to a Press inquiry.
And there’s the rub.
The Press has previously mentioned that there have been no reported problems with current fire department personnel. The query centers instead on a possible contradiction of what legally guides temporary appointments and what the consequences may be for not having clearly established department heads.
The charter gives commission members the authority to approve or disapprove of these appointments, but at this point none have requested further action.
“Based upon our discourse with the city manager, no request was made by any commissioner to conduct a formal vote to extend those appointments,” Commissioner Ralph Van Brocklin said late Thursday.
However, the fact the appointments were continuing and that there was a definite rationale behind them, was clearly communicated to commissioners, he added.
Peterson wrote in his communication to the Press that, “The lack of action to disapprove my appointments has been considered as the Commission’s approval of the interim appointments.”
But does the commissioners’ lack of action trump the city charter which calls for temporary appointments of not longer than 90 days? The charter does not spell that out.
“I campaigned on the fact that we do need to make a decision regarding the fire chief position,” Commissioner Clayton Stout said Thursday morning. “This reflects poorly on us that a decision hasn’t been made. It was actually on the top of my list to call Pete this morning. People are looking for commissioners to be leaders, and I don’t like things like this hanging out there too long. I think we need to put some kind of timeline on this.”
Stout said Peterson had emailed a copy of the inquiry and his response to all commissioners.
In mid-July, an advertisement for a new parks and recreation director appeared on the city’s website. At that time, the Press asked Peterson why this position, as well as the others, had not yet been filled. His response was that the city had been able to save hundreds of thousands of dollars per year by leaving certain positions open and/or filling them with interim appointments.
“Including benefits and salary, the fire chief and parks and recreation director collectively cost about $200,000 per year,” he said in July. “We have over 25 positions either frozen or unfunded at this time in our ongoing efforts to balance the budget without a tax increase. It is my philosophy that these vacancies should be throughout the organization, placed strategically where service levels will not be impacted. In other words, we don’t need to limit vacancies to front line positions.”
At that time, Bristol Fire Chief Bob Barnes said he had been with that department since the early 1970s, and in that time two new chiefs had been named. Neither appointment took longer than three months.
“Most departments don’t take that long, and I think it can cause morale to go down,” Barnes said.
Kingsport Fire Chief, Craig Dye, said two fire chiefs were appointed before he took the position in 2004. His appointment came within two months.
On March 28, one of the questions posed to City Commission candidates prior to the municipal election was why a permanent fire chief hadn’t been named. That question was asked at a forum sponsored by the Johnson City Professional Firefighters Association.
Now Mayor Jeff Banyas said during the event that Peterson was deliberate about what he does and that he was trying to be fair to everyone by giving the two candidates enough time to demonstrate how they handled the job.
On Thursday, Banyas said his opinion hadn’t changed.
“I spoke with Pete months ago, and he explained his plan,” he said. “He wasn’t real pleased with some of the out-of-town applicants. I do agree with his plan. The fire chief position is very important, and I feel it’s better to take a little more time than not to take enough. The next fire chief is at the station right now. The citizens are being protected.”
Telephone messages were left Thursday with all commissioners. Vice Mayor Phil Carriger and Commissioner Jane Myron were not immediately available.