SALISBURY — After the City Council rejected a candidate advanced by Mayor James Ireton last week, the position of chief for the Salisbury Fire Department (SFD) will likely be in limbo until at least June.
In a 3-2 vote, the council decided not to promote Deputy and current Acting Chief Rick Hoppes to fill the position left when former SFD Chief Jeff Simpson resigned last month. Hoppes, who has more than 20 years’ experience with SFD and has served as acting chief twice before, was chosen by Ireton as what he felt was the most qualified possible candidate.
The council disagreed, a stance that Ireton attributed to a perceived unhealthy pattern of stonewalling.
“I think it’s a shame that somebody with that many years’ experience, two stints as acting chief, and an agreement that he have his degree this year, be subjected to the brick wall council majority that is holding up every significant piece of work that has to be done in Salisbury,” Ireton said.
Councilwoman Laura Mitchell, who voted in the minority in favor of promoting Hoppes, also said she was baffled by the majority’s decision.
“I felt Chief Hoppes gave an excellent interview … He is clearly invested in the Salisbury Fire Department,” she said. “I don’t know how else we should expect someone to prove their worthiness, interest, or desire.”
Like Ireton, Mitchell also observed what she believes is a negative trend.
“I felt this was another instance where the council came in with their mind made up,” she said.
Council President Terry Cohen chose not to directly defend the majority’s decision, but pointed out that the vote took place in a closed session and is therefore private.
“Employee interviews and personnel matters are confidential, and I will continue to abide by that confidentiality,” Cohen said. “It is unfortunate that the mayor continues to position personnel matters to play out in the press and that Councilwoman Mitchell is quoted as knowing what is in the minds of other council members. I choose not to make personnel matters a football of political opportunism out of respect for both the process and the candidates.”
According to Mitchell, the council denying Hoppes’ promotion bodes ill for more than just the SFD.
“It was much bigger than just the selection of the fire chief,” she said.
Over the last six months, the city has lost a number of high profile personnel, including Simpson, City Clerk Brenda Colegrove, City Attorney Paul Wilber and Director of Internal Services Pam Oland. Not all resigned, with Wilber being replaced and Colegrove set to retire in March after nearly two decades of service. However, Mitchell considered the departures a warning sign.
“We are seeing more and more loss of personnel,” she pointed out. “People are concerned.”
For now, the ball is in Ireton’s court. It is up to him to advance another candidate or request a national search for applicants.
According to Mitchell, Ireton could even re-submit Hoppes as his candidate, though she doubted the vote would change.
Ireton said this week that he won’t revisit the issue anytime soon.
“Acting Chief Hoppes will stay as chief, at the very least, until summer,” he confirmed. “I am not doing another search or putting the issue on the table until after the budget season.”