Council Majority Seeks To End Fire Chief Stalemate

SALISBURY — The majority of the Salisbury City Council put Mayor Jim Ireton on the clock this week when it only agreed to extend the status of Acting Fire Chief Rick Hoppes until Feb. 28 and told administration to advance a candidate to serve as permanent chief.

Hoppes has served as the Salisbury Fire Department (SFD) acting chief since last winter when then-Chief Jeff Simpson resigned. As deputy chief, Hoppes was moved to fill the spot until a permanent replacement could be found. Ireton advised the council to offer the permanent position to Hoppes but that was declined, with a majority of council members asking that a more extensive search be conducted.

Instead, Ireton dug in his heels and refused to advance another candidate, leaving him and the council in a year-long staring match.

“That was just sort of left in the lurch, left in the acting status,” said Councilman Tim Spies. “So we’re just sort of buzzing around at this point and waiting and waiting and waiting.”

Hoppes’ acting status first expired in July, but was extended by the council. However, no expiration date was set to that extension, which prompted the special meeting this week when the Feb. 28 deadline was agreed upon by a split council.

“I think that it’s necessary to set an aggressive timeline in order to get some movement on this because, like you said Mr. Spies, there have been opportunities to get this taken care of. We now have a situation where the mayor seems to have willfully disregarded the law,” said Councilwoman Debbie Campbell.

The administration had its defenders on the council, however, who sought to extend the 30-day period to three months.

“If this is about political gains, then 30 days makes sense or 35 days, whatever it is,” said Councilwoman Laura Mitchell. “If you’re really looking to resolve this problem and give the mayor an opportunity to do a search and make a permanent appointment and forward that to us, then three months is the minimum I consider reasonable.”

While there might be some bad blood lingering over Ireton’s refusal to offer a new candidate after his original choice was rejected, Mitchell reminded the council that playing hardball with a time-limit was not the best way to evoke a spirit of mutual cooperation.

“This is not the past … we are here today. Looking forward is our job, going forward to make sure that we get not just a permanent chief in the fire department but the best permanent chief that we can possibly get,” she said.

Councilwoman Shanie Shields agreed with the longer extension.

“I think three months is more than fair, which is why I agreed to it,” she said. “I don’t know if three months is going to be the answer but three months would give you an idea of what is in the administration’s mind.”

If the council continues to extend Hoppes’ acting status, Spies asked, then what’s to prevent the administration from dragging their feet further.

“The time advanced by Ms. Campbell is short but it is telling the mayor, in no uncertain terms, that we’re serious about doing business here and we want you to fess up to the public and be open and have transparency,” Spies said.

The 30-day extension does not lead to a brick wall either, added Campbell, and as long as it’s clear that Ireton has made some effort in that time she said the situation can be re-examined at the end of the month.

“If we’re coming toward the end of this extension and the mayor can show to us that he’s just about ready to advance a name, then we can consider that situation when we get there,” she said.

Ideally, Campbell admitted that she would prefer the mayor locate a candidate and have the person ready for council evaluation by the end of the month but if administration isn’t at that point she expects to see a “significant and sincere effort has been made” to begin a search.

Spies supported Campbell and said that if administration begins to show signs of life regarding a candidate search he will be willing to be flexible with the situation.

Council President Terry Cohen concurred, asserting she wants to see a resolution in the near future.

“We have asked nicely a number of times, ‘when can we expect something?’” she said. “And what we’ve gotten back [from Ireton] is, ‘when I’m good and ready, when I’m good and ready, when I’m good and ready.’ And that is not acceptable, that is not honorable. We at this table are not the ones who dragged this out for more than a year into an election season. We are not making political hay.”

Mitchell and Shields lost 3-2 in their bid to extend Hoppes’ acting status for three more months. The hardball time limit is “sending a really bad message,” Mitchell warned the rest of the council.

Though Ireton did not attend the special meeting, he has repeatedly defended his choice of offering only Hoppes as the candidate for permanent chief. Consequently, Cohen acknowledged that the issue could end up in front of a judge.