New Attorney Confirms Wilbur’s Fire Chief Opinion

SALISBURY — After legal confirmation that Salisbury could bypass a national fire chief search if it so chooses, the City Council decided to interview Acting Fire Chief Rick Hoppes this week.

“The council can take two or three or four possible paths when proceeding with this,” said Council President Terry Cohen in reference to Hoppes.

Early last month, Salisbury Fire Department Chief Jeff Simpson announced his resignation, which went into effect Jan. 20. Simpson was the second fire chief to leave the city within two years.

To fill the gap, Hoppes has been serving as acting chief and will continue to do so until a replacement is found. Shortly after Simpson’s announcement, Mayor Jim Ireton recommended that Hoppes be offered the position permanently.

Before Ireton could officially come before the council with his endorsement, however, a probe was begun into the city’s code by the council to determine whether or not it would be legal to skip the search process as Ireton was suggesting.

“The question was whether or not we needed to have a selection process,” said Cohen.

Traditionally, Salisbury has conducted a national search when replacing a position such as the fire chief. One such search was used to land Simpson, which is one of the reasons Ireton saw no point in repeating the process. He noted that with Simpson serving just over a year, most of the applications Salisbury would receive have already been reviewed.

Cohen stressed that there would not need to be a national hunt but pointed out the code did mention a “competitive search” when filling an appointed position.

“There may be something in the middle,” said Cohen, referring to a compromise between a costly search and taking Ireton’s endorsement.  

Last month, former City Attorney Paul Wilber was asked if the council could avoid the search process without risking a potential court case. Wilber reported the city was not legally bound to conduct a search if it wished to accept Ireton’s endorsement of Hoppes.

Some on the council remained wary, however, and the topic resurfaced during Monday’s meeting.
“I don’t have a problem one way or another,” said Cohen.

The same question was put to Mark Tilghman, who last week was appointed as Wilber’s replacement. After reviewing Salisbury’s codes, Tilghman agreed with his predecessor’s opinion.

“There’s no law that requires you to go through a competitive selection process,” he said.

Councilwoman Laura Mitchell, who has pushed from the beginning to interview Hoppes, was satisfied with the determination but confused that multiple legal counsels had to be consulted.

“The way I read it, it sounds like the discretion [to conduct a search] is the mayor’s, not our’s,” she said.

Though the entire council agreed to an interview, Mitchell remained skeptical that Hoppes will be accepted and a search avoided.

“It think it will get bounced back and forth,” she said.

Mitchell added that she hasn’t made up her mind on the candidate and asked him several specific questions during the interview. She did emphasize his qualifications, however, which include more than two decades of experience with the fire department, a slew of emergency and fire certifications and an Associate of Applied Sciences Degree in Business Management with a Bachelor’s Degree in Business Administration in the works.

Further interviews were expected to be held toward the end of this week.