SALISBURY – Without an item scheduled regarding the Salisbury Fire Department (SFD) on the City Council’s Monday meeting agenda, the room was filled with fire and EMS personnel anxiously awaiting the appointment of a new leader and to voice their support for Acting Fire Chief Rick Hoppes to fill that role.
In January of 2012, following the resignation of then-Fire Chief Jeff Simpson, who served just over a year, Hoppes once again was named acting fire chief until a permanent fire chief is selected. Prior, Hoppes filled the position of acting fire chief for 18 months following the retirement of then-Chief David See.
Last February, following Simpson’s resignation, Mayor Jim Ireton announced his support for Hoppes to fill the vacant post. This would have avoided the cost for another national search. However, the final decision is not up to Ireton. He can only make a recommendation to the council, which then has the option of accepting or rejecting the endorsement.
Last July, the council rejected Hoppes as SFD’s new chief, with the majority of members requesting a more extensive search be conducted. Since then, the mayor has refused to advance another candidate resulting in him and the council being in a stalemate.
Hoppes’ acting status first expired in July, but was extended by the council. However, no expiration date was set to that extension, which prompted a special meeting this month when a Feb. 28 deadline was agreed upon by a split council.
At this week’s meeting, Justin Byrd, speaking on behalf of the volunteer members of Salisbury Fire Station 2, stated the station’s support for Hoppes to become the permanent SFD chief.
“He has shown during his two separate stints as acting fire chief that he is proficient in his duties and he is a forward thinking individual that puts the best interest of everyone else first,” he said. “To us, the fact that he has accepted this position again, being denied the promotion the first time, shows that his dedication to the wellbeing of my family and yours has never wavered. Please put politics aside and please don’t drag this out any longer than it already has.”
SFD Deputy Chief Lee Smith, who represents all the volunteer fire fighters in the city, reviewed Hoppes’ extensive history with SFD and many accomplishments within the department, including preparing and presenting three out of the last five budgets. Also, Hoppes is responsible for receiving a Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response (SAFER) Grant that provided the opportunity of hiring 12 additional positions that allowed for the re-opening of Station 2 that had been shut down for a few years due to inadequate staffing.
“He [Hoppes] has certainly earned the respect of the organization, and I certainly think the outpouring of the people here today in support of him has certainly shown that we have the confidence in him to move forward to be the fire chief of the City of Salisbury,” he said. “We ask that you put personal agendas or personal vendettas aside against Chief Hoppes.”
Anthony Webster, training officer for SFD and president of Pittsville Fire Department, pointed out Hoppes’ credentials meet the requirements to become the next SFD chief.
“He [Hoppes] has the support of SFD and Mayor James Ireton, as well as outlying fire departments … we just want to know why we don’t have our leader yet,” he said. “There is no reason whatsoever why a decision has not been made … You have to put aside the difference between the Mayor’s Office and the City Council and quit beating up on Hoppes and give him what he deserves.”
Steve White, president of the Parsonsburg Fire Department, Ted Farlow, president of Pittsville Volunteer Fire Department, and Robin Townsend, chief of the Fruitland Fire Department, all came before the council to voice their departments’ support for Hoppes.
“He [Hoppes] shows the caring for the citizens of Salisbury and Wicomico County that they get the best emergency service possible, and that is something that comes from the heart, and that means a lot,” White said.
Before the meeting was adjourned, Council President Terry Cohen took the time to address the accusations made toward personal vendettas against Hoppes.
“This is not a political or personal decision,” Cohen said. “This is a business decision regarding a $7 million department. We have stated on the record that we cannot not disclose the substantive reasons because it is a personnel matter, and under law it is protected.”
Cohen explained the process for any position is recommended by the Mayor’s Office for the council to approve.
“Council has abided by the law in every step in accordance with the charter … there is nothing personal or political here we have simply been following the process,” she said.
During Hoppes time with the SFD, beginning as a volunteer in 1985 and became career in 1988, Hoppes has served in a variety of positions such as lieutenant and training officer, captain, assistant fire chief, deputy fire chief and now acting fire chief.