By Greg Mason
UTICA, N.Y. — Andre Esposito, chairman of Utica's Civil Service Commission, believes the board has a tough decision to make within the next few months.
The commission is considering a request from Mayor Robert Palmieri to authorize an open competitive exam to vet candidates for Utica's next fire chief. This would open up the test to internal and external candidates for a fire department historically led by internal promotion.
Esposito and Civil Service Commissioners Teresa Wojnas and Dietra Harvey will have to weigh that against the opinions of top fire officials in Utica and nearby cities as well as several local elected officials who believe the Utica Fire Department has enough worthy candidates within its ranks. Several of those dissenting opinions were voiced Thursday's Civil Service Commission meeting.
The commission did not decide on the matter Thursday. The board will meet next Wednesday, Aug. 15.
“There's a lot of information to take in. The commission is trying to do our due diligence to obviously make the right decision,” Esposito said. “The department's been promotional for all of its existence, and to change it is a big decision. We're looking at it responsibly and all of the information that was provided.”
The fire chief's position has come under scrutiny in recent months due to a number of concurrent issues.
Current Chief Russell Brooks has been on administrative, nondisciplinary leave since May 2017 due to issues related to his health. There have been three temporary chiefs since.
The latest appointee — James Barefoot, who is serving a three-month appointment — assumed the role after his predecessor, Deputy Chief John Kelly, resigned from the temporary role after he was found in violation of department policy in connection to a series of lewd text messages between Kelly and a potential fire department recruit.
During Brooks' remarks Thursday, the fire chief rebuked the open competitive request. He said the concept is only appropriate for municipalities that cannot find internal candidates that can or want to be fire chiefs.
He instead urged the commission to open up the fire chief's exam by making Utica firefighters ranked captain or higher eligible.
“No one can come in here and know Utica,” Brooks said. “They don't know the people. They won't know the buildings. They won't know the routes to take. They won't know what time of day to modify routes because kids are getting out of school. It's just a horrible political concept. You have numerous qualified people.”
Brooks and Thomas Carcone, president of the Utica Professional Firefighters Association, were among 12 speakers during Thursday's meeting. The commission also received written comments from seven other individuals, five of those from leaders within the Utica and Rome fire departments — including Rome fire Chief Ronald Brement.
All were against the mayor's request.
Carcone requested eligibility for the fire chief's exam to be opened to the fire department's eight captains who have completed their probationary period, four deputy chiefs, chief fire marshal and assistant chief.
“We should not be looking outside for a new chief any more than we shouldn't be looking outside for an outside public safety commissioner or an outside mayor to restore the civic culture of our great city,” Carcone said. “Open competitive testing has been attempted, tested and failed already in Utica.”
When Carcone asked for Palmieri's reasoning for an open competitive process, Esposito said the mayor submitted an Observer-Dispatch editorial from June with his request.
Published June 29, the editorial details Palmieri's desire to find the best leader possible for the fire department, which he believes can be found by looking both within the Utica Fire Department and externally through an open process.
Palmieri was not at Thursday's meeting.
Utica Common Council President Michael Galime called the mayor's use of the editorial “lofty at best.” He was joined by other Common Council members Joseph Marino, Samantha Colosimo-Testa and Frank DiBrango during the civil service meeting.
“Ever since what unfolded with the Chief Brooks situation, I believe there have been missteps and miscommunications,” Galime said, “And I don't believe that the situation stemming from that situation should be put on the people that are actually on the force right now. I do believe we have people within our own department that would be more than adequate for the position.”
Chief Fire Marshal Ray Centolella said if the mayor feels the fire department is not up to a certain level of standards, there are other ways it could be addressed rather than bringing in an external hire for fire chief. Doing so, Centolella said, would be at the detriment to the department and its morale.
He said it is reminiscent of how the city has tried in the past to hire public safety commissioners from the outside, but it “didn't work.”
“The big thing that we have here is that ability to — especially with the personnel now — work well together,” Centolella said. “What you don't want is to bring an outsider in … and come in and butt heads with everybody else here.”
Copyright 2018 Observer-Dispatch