Lost in the hubbub about lame-duck Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake’s appointment of interim police commissioner Kevin Davis to a long-term contract is the mayor’s effort to engineer the appointment of the current fire chief to a similarly lengthy tenure.
The Board of Estimates, which the mayor controls, is set to approve tomorrow a new employment contract for Fire Chief Niles R. Ford, a fact revealed upon the release of the board’s agenda late yesterday.
Police Commissioner Davis’ contract was announced a week ago by the mayor and went through a (cursory) City Council review process.
Not only will the Ford contract go into effect “upon Board approval” tomorrow – the employment agreement will last (like Commissioner Davis’) through June 30, 2020.
Infringing on the next Mayor?
That’s almost four years after Mayor Rawlings-Blake steps down from office in December 2016.
The new contract hikes Ford’s annual pay from $171,700 to $183,500, or 7%. When the former Lincoln, Neb., fire chief arrived in Baltimore some 22 months ago, his starting salary was $165,000, according to on-line city records.
The mayor’s spokesman, Howard Libit, has not responded to our questions about why the mayor believes a new contract was necessary now, and whether it might hamstring the personnel choices of her successor.
In terms of transparency, not even the presidents of the two fire unions were aware of the employment agreement when contacted this afternoon.
What’s Good for the Goose
Repeatedly saying, “I’m surprised,” Fire Officers Association Local 964 President Michael Campbell pointed out that city firefighters don’t enjoy such long-term employment guarantees.
In fact, the city charter requires that the fire unions can sign no more than a three-year contract with a mayor. “That’s because a fourth year could technically infringe on another mayor,” Campbell said.
The union contracts are up next year. That means that the unions will be signing one-year deals that terminate when Rawlings-Blake leaves City Hall.
“I think that what’s good for the goose is good for the gander,” said Rick Hoffman, president of Fire Fighters Association 734, when informed of the extended employment agreements.
“Signing Niles Ford and Kevin Davis to one-year contracts [terminating with Rawlings-Blake’s departure] would probably be the most fair and equitable thing to do,” Hoffman said.
A List of Accomplishments
In its submission to the board, the mayor’s office describes Chief Ford’s key accomplishments as:
• developing technology that reduces worker compensation claims.
• initiating a high school program to train students to become Emergency Medical Technicians and firefighters.
• “promoting diversity within the Department by appointing the first female to the rank of Assistant Fire Chief.”
• launching a dive team and special operations command.
• “spearheading a public/private partnership to modernize several fire station kitchens for Department personnel.”
Such a list is unlikely to impress everyday citizens whose key concerns over their safety involve crime and protection from fire. On the latter issue, both Campbell and Hoffman give Chief Niles high marks.
“He’s a chain-of-command kind of chief,” says Campbell, noting that the last chief, James Clack, was more concerned with terminating fire companies and constantly reshuffling the bureaucracy.
Do Job Guarantees Benefit Public Safety?
Hoffman says Ford’s success was on display during the April riots where firefighters put out hundreds of fires and saved many lives.
“I think we did a fantastic job during the riots, and he was our leader,” Hoffman said. “I will give Niles Ford the benefit of the doubt. I think he’s trying to find a way to make us better.”
Bringing stability and true leadership to the “uniforms” (fire and police) is one of the biggest challenges now facing Baltimore, Hoffman said.
“The city has been turned upside down. Crime is out of control. If the administration’s idea is to get some leaders to carry us through these hard times, I’m not going to argue too much with these employment contracts.”
And, maybe, an employment extension was necessary to keep Ford working for local government.
“But,” Hoffman continued, “I sure wish the city would articulate what they’re doing. The mayor should tell us why contracts that seem to last forever will improve public safety and security.”