Wellesley Fire Chief Rick DeLorie’s recently announced retirement after 14 years in charge set off a series of discussions among the town’s Select Board about hiring and supporting DeLorie’s successor.
The discussions began with selection of a consulting firm to handle the executive recruitment for the position, and the town chose to go with Municipal Resources after Wellesley Executive Director Meghan Jop interviewed 3 consulting firms. Brian Duggan from the firm described an extensive process that includes an assessment center component that simulates the job of a fire chief and includes role-playing exercises based on scenarios “ripped from the headlines” (See Wellesley Media recording of Nov. 7 Select Board meeting about 1 hour, 47 minutes in).
Duggan addressed questions from Board members Ann-Mara Lanza and Beth Sullivan Woods about the Board’s role in the process. Duggan said it will depend on the candidate pool, but could involve Board input at the start to help inform the assessment center design; may involve observation at the assessment center; and then could include interviews with the final 3 prospects in a more public setting.
Later in that Nov. 7 meeting, the Board discussed a proposed policy to delegate to Jop the authority to appoint, evaluate, discipline, remove, and provide day-to-day administration over the chief. Appointment and removal would require Board ratification. This issue was originally part of the discussion over the executive director’s contract, but was broken out separately.
“The purpose of this policy is really to set up our incoming fire chief for success…” said Board Chair Lise Olney. “I certainly feel strongly that the executive director is best equipped to help him or her navigate in that new role. We don’t work day-to-day with the chief, and the new chief is going to need direct and immediate access to that supervisor as they settle into the job.”
What’s more, having Jop evaluate the chief’s performance would take that process out of the public meeting format at a time when the new chief is coming up to speed, said Olney, who added that the policy could always be changed back down the road. Under the proposed changes, Jop said the fire chief would be worked into the regular biweekly meeting rotation she already has with department heads from facilities and other groups in town.
Town Counsel Tom Harrington said “It’s clear to me that the board is well within its rights to delegate what authority it has over the fire department to the executive director if it so chooses… It’s not unusual in other towns for the fire chief to report to whatever they call their executive director.” One justification for this is having the fire chief report to a member of the “daytime government” staff working at town hall vs. the “nighttime government” that includes the elected volunteers on the Select Board, he said.
The policy initially under discussion expanded upon Article 19.7 of the town bylaw, which includes a list of those positions—including fire chief—that the Select Board shall appoint.
Lanza questioned the notion of the Board delegating the authority to appoint a chief to the executive director. “I think it is expected by the community that we take this responsibility,” she said, acknowledging that she was open to the idea of day-to-day oversight being more appropriate for the director.
Sullivan Woods questioned what the town would be “trying to fix” through the proposed policy, citing the current “collaborative system” that she says works well. She also wondered if this could eventually lead to the Board delegating authority to hire and supervise the police chief to the executive director. Olney said the impetus for the policy being discussed was the fire chief’s retirement.
Board member Tom Ulfelder said “I don’t quite understand the consternation over the appointment or termination issue…I really don’t think there’s a great deal of difference between how we’ve been operating and how we would be operating other than recognizing the value of having the executive director as the person most familiar with the day-to-day operations of the department raising issues of concern or identifying the best candidates for our consideration…” At a later meeting Ulfelder said the current evaluation process itself, which he described as “the most cumbersome, ineffective process that I have seen in town government,” supports a change.
The discussion included familiar arguments from Wellesley’s 2016 debate over whether to hire a town manager.
When the fire chief discussion was picked up again at the Nov. 22 Select Board meeting (about 2 hours, 39 minutes into the Wellesley Media recording), the proposed policy had changed and was now expanding on Article 22 (devoted to the fire department) of the town bylaw.
Olney said she had removed language related to the appointment of the fire chief given the earlier Board member concerns, and this version focused more on delegating the supervisory authority. She stressed later that delegation of authority related to the fire chief does not relieve the Board of its responsibility over the Fire Department.
Still, Sullivan Woods said, “for me it feels that we are disengaging.”
In addressing the question of why the town would consider such a new policy, Board member Colette Aufranc said she was struck during the recent introduction to the fire chief search consultant just how technical the fire department is. This, she said, illustrated “how critical it is that somebody in that department has access really on a daily basis with their supervisor and we’re [the Board] not there to do that…” The municipal professional staff has skills that the Board doesn’t, she said, despite what she’s learned about the fire department during her tenure on the Board.
In the end, not without more efforts to rework the policy’s wording, the Board voted 3-2 in favor of the policy.