Fire Dept. changes stoke tensions

City Councilman Jimmy Gallant

A member of Charleston City Council plans to call an emergency meeting in an attempt to rescind a flurry of last-minute promotions and transfers made Wednesday by Fire Chief Rusty Thomas in his waning days in office.

The Rev. Jimmy Gallant, chairman of council's Public Safety Committee, said Thomas had no business messing with the Fire Department's pecking order and assignments so close to his planned June 27 departure.

Thomas promoted 16 firefighters, including three captains who rose to the rank of battalion chief.

Six engineers were promoted to captains, and seven men became engineers. A number of transfers also are planned, though city officials said a final list was still in the works late Wednesday.

Mayor Joe Riley and other city officials said the promotions process was fair and professional. The personnel changes had been in the works for several months and were needed to fill key vacancies and keep the Fire Department running until a new fire chief is hired, Riley said. City officials acknowledged that the new chief could reverse these moves, so the promotions

were made on a one-year, probationary basis.

Gallant said such important decisions should have been left to the incoming chief, and that doing them now reeks of retribution. "It looks like (Thomas) is getting even. That is dead wrong. It is totally out of order."

Thomas abruptly announced his retirement May 14, one day before a city-appointed panel of experts issued a report that was sharply critical of his decisions in the June 18 Sofa Super Store fire that killed nine city firefighters.

Critics questioned whether Thomas was using the promotion process to reward supporters and punish opponents who had spoken out about problems in the Fire Department.

"This comes after a devastating critique of the Fire Department, and the same man who was in charge on June 18 is now sitting at the head of the table making promotions and transfers," said Jay Lowry, a former Charleston firefighter who writes the Internet blog Firefighter Hourly. "It strikes me as a last-gasp gotcha."

Gallant, who learned of the promotions from The Post and Courier, said he was particularly surprised that Thomas made the moves one day after City Council voted 9-2 to demand a larger role in selecting a new fire chief.

He said he plans to call a special meeting of his committee, possibly as soon as today, and invite all council members to attend. Gallant said he will make a motion to rescind the promotions and transfers. Failing that, he believes council members could wield their budgetary influence and block any pay raises tied to the promotions, he said.

"I don't know how the mayor can sit back and allow this to happen," he said.

Riley said such criticism was unfair and unfounded, and that Thomas' motives were pure and honorable. He called Gallant's suggestion to block pay raises "patently ridiculous" and "absurd."

"We shouldn't be playing politics with the Fire Department," Riley said. "The citizens of Charleston don't deserve that."

Riley and other officials stressed that the city closely followed promotional procedures recommended by its outside panel of experts to ensure the process was fair and that the best candidates were selected. He said the city consulted with panel leader Gordon Routley before Thomas made the promotions.

In the past, Thomas alone handled all hiring and promotions within the Fire Department. The city-appointed panel recommended a more formal process that includes reading lists, written exams, candidate rankings and training to help job candidates prepare.

Those applying to become battalion chiefs were required to submit resumes and undergo interviews by a group consisting of Thomas, three assistant fire chiefs, a city human resources recruiter and a North Charleston Fire Department battalion chief. The human resources department compiled the group's rankings, from which Thomas made the final pick, said Kay Cross, the city's human resources director.

Candidates for engineer and captain positions were ranked based on performance on written exams and interviews with Fire Department committees. Again, Thomas made the pick from a list of top candidates, Cross said.

"This all started months ago," she said. "We didn't feel it would be fair to the people who applied to stop the process until a new fire chief was on board."

The city could not immediately provide information on how many people had applied for the jobs in question.

Speaking on behalf of Thomas, Mark Ruppel, the Fire Department's public information officer, said nothing nefarious should be read into the pending transfers either. Promotions often require a shuffling of manpower and reassignments to make sure all stations are covered, he said.

Jeff Zack, assistant to the general president of the Washington-based International Association of Fire Fighters, didn't know specifics about Wednesday's moves but said the union will monitor the situation closely. The union will stand behind any Charleston firefighters who feel they've been targeted because they spoke out about safety issues or other legitimate concerns, he said.

Reach Glenn Smith at 937-5556 or gsmith@postandcourier.com. Reach Ron Menchaca at 937-5724 or rmenchaca@postandcourier.com.