Riley urges council to move ahead

Mayor Joe Riley speaks to Charleston residents in a TV address Thursday urging City Council to move forward and help advance improvements in the Fire Department.

Wade Spees

Charleston Mayor Joe Riley used 10 minutes of prime TV news time Thursday night to reiterate many of the same themes he has repeatedly addressed in the year since the June 18 Sofa Super Store blaze.

During the address, he called upon his critics to put aside "petty political disputes" and "theatrics" and join him in working to make the Fire Department a national model in the wake of the fire.

He said he felt compelled to speak directly to residents in an unfiltered format so that his words would not be whittled down to a sound bite or a few sentences in the newspaper.

A city councilman who tangled with the mayor this week accused Riley of tying up three local newscasts to "have the last word."

Though not singling out his critics by name, Riley expressed disappointment in the comments of some City Council members at Monday's Public Safety Committee meeting. That gathering devolved into bickering and finger-pointing after the chairman, Councilman Jimmy Gallant, resigned. Gallant accused the mayor of "playing games" with the lives of firefighters and trying to stifle debate about the Fire Department in the wake of the blaze that killed nine city firefighters.

"We honor their memory not with petty political disputes or theatrics, but with hard work and progress in our department," Riley said. "Continuing to move ahead with sharp focus on our most important mission — making this fire department among the best in America — is the way we will remember these brave members."

Gallant did not attend or watch the address because he was the keynote speaker at West Ashley Middle School's graduation.

"Speaking to these children is far more important to me than listening to him tie up the television airwaves," Gallant said, just prior to the school ceremony. "It appears the mayor can't let this go and he has to have the last word. That's sad."

In his address, Riley highlighted a number of improvements in the Fire Department, from enhanced training and new equipment to improved code enforcement, added manpower and a stronger voice for firefighters in developing department policies. He also spoke of counseling initiatives to help grieving firefighters and the city's national search to find the best leader to replace retiring Fire Chief Rusty Thomas.

The mayor pledged to make the top three or four finalists available to firefighters and City Council to gather input before a new chief is selected. But he stressed that the final choice, by law, is his to make.

Riley acknowledged that a report issued last month by a panel of city-appointed experts pointed to "a number of operational policies in our department that may have affected the safe and successful fighting of this fire."

In fact, the 272-page report found that the Fire Department was "completely unprepared" to tackle the sofa store fire and that firefighters were exposed to "excessive and avoidable risks."

"I recognize and acknowledge these shortcomings, I take responsibility for them, and state once again my commitment to correcting them," Riley said, adding that "the buck stops here."

Two council members who serve on the Public Safety Committee attended the mayor's address and gave him high marks for the substance of his comments.

Councilwoman Kathleen Wilson said the public has heard from "a vocal minority" on council, but most council members favor a "level-headed, methodical" approach to improving the Fire Department. Councilman Aubrey Alexander said the mayor's speech was a thorough accounting of the city's many efforts to make the department better.

Riley ally takes reins

Riley tapped Alexander on Wednesday to fill Gallant's seat on the Public Safety Committee and appointed Councilwoman Yvonne Evans, one of the mayor's staunchest supporters, to chair the panel.

Evans had disagreed with Gallant's efforts to use the committee to discuss a series of controversial promotions and transfers made by Thomas in his waning days at the Fire Department.

The moves, which included nearly 50 promotions and transfers, were seen by some firefighters as payback for speaking out against Thomas or criticizing the pace of their department's efforts to embrace modern firefighting practices.

Concerns over the timing of the personnel moves prompted Gallant on Monday to hold a special meeting of the Public Safety Committee to discuss the moves. But Riley challenged the legality of the meeting minutes before it was to begin, citing a procedural technicality. Gallant resigned in protest.

Evans is unlikely to pose a similar challenge to Riley's authority. She insists that giving council members power to influence city personnel matters would be dangerous because fire and police employees should not have to worry about their jobs being influenced by political agendas.

"It's a sensitive issue because you don't want to politicize public safety," Evans said. "There should never be a question."

Gallant said he simply wants to discuss the issues openly, not micromanage firefighters. He said the mayor's choice of Evans to lead the committee should be a big concern to citizens because she only called one meeting of the panel during her previous stint as chair from 2004 through 2005. "It appears Riley wants to be in charge of that committee," Gallant said.