State law on Riley's side, council told

Fire Chief Rusty Thomas

ALAN HAWES

Charleston Mayor Joe Riley has the absolute power to appoint department heads but should include the City Council in vetting finalists for fire chief, the head of the Municipal Association of South Carolina said Thursday.

"That's exactly how the process should work," said Howard Duvall, executive director of the association.

At issue is whether the council can demand the power to interview job candidates, as it did Tuesday in a rare challenge to Riley.

Many council members see the selection of a fire chief as an extension of the Fire Department overhaul that followed the deaths of nine city firefighters in the Sofa Super Store fire last June, and they want to play an active role.

Councilman Jimmy Gallant, chairman of the Public Safety Committee, has said he also plans to challenge dozens of Fire Department promotions and transfers announced Wednesday by retiring Fire Chief Rusty Thomas.

Gallant said it looks to him like Thomas "is getting even" with people who criticized him or the department.

City attorney Charlton deSaussure cautioned council members in a three-page memo that any attempt to dilute Riley's power to appoint the next fire chief would be against the law.

"While that appointment is subject to the approval of City Council, the duty and responsibility of the mayor to make the appointment is absolute," deSaussure wrote. "Therefore, any dilution of the process employed by the mayor in discharging the appointive power placed in that office is not permitted under state law."

What the council hopes to do is interview three or four finalists for fire chief, and make recommendations to the mayor. In municipalities such as Charleston that use the strong mayor form of government, mayors make appointments subject to council's approval.

"Their involvement is in approving the mayor's appointee," deSaussure said in an interview Thursday. "The mayor's power is clear."

Duvall noted that earlier this month, Riley wrote a memo to council members that said he might bring fire chief finalists to Charleston to meet with council and members of the Fire Department, "if we get to a situation where there area 3 or 4 candidates of relatively equal ability."

Riley later told the council that if he finds a clear winner among the job applicants, then he will just present one nominee to council, as he did in the 2006 appointment of Police Chief Greg Mullen.

Unsatisfied with the ambiguity, the council demanded a seat at the interview table, voting 9-2 to give the council's Public Safety Committee a role in the fire chief hiring process that would include interviewing the finalists.

It was an unusual, near-unanimous vote against the mayor, who was joined in opposing the motion by Councilwoman Yvonne Evans.

Council members also asked if they could have an expert on municipal law meet with them to explain the legal limits on the council's authority. Riley said he would arrange for Duvall to address the council in a meeting as-yet unscheduled.

Council members have complained of feeling left out and poorly informed about the fire investigation and efforts to improve the Fire Department.

Some were particularly irked about learning of fire-related events, such as the decision to release a key report, or the retirement of Thomas, through the news media or from constituents rather than from City Hall.

The issue of being kept informed surfaced again Wednesday when Gallant learned about the series of promotions and transfers within the Fire Department from a reporter after they were announced by the city in 4 p.m. press release.

Thomas, who is scheduled to retire June 27, promoted 16 firefighters and transferred 43 others through the city's 19 fire stations.

The transfers take effect this weekend. The city has not released the transfer list, but The Post and Courier has learned the list includes some who publicly criticized Thomas or spoke out about Fire Department problems.

Capt. Jamie Greene, a 20-year veteran, said firefighters were already struggling with emotional issues surrounding the first anniversary of the sofa store fire and new training demands. Now they will have to adjust to new stations, crews, districts and schedules.

"We've already been through enough this year," he said.

Green, who had discussed the need for a leadership change, is being transferred from Engine 6 on the peninsula to Engine 7 on James Island. He is also being moved to a different shift.

Engineer Brian Rivers, who is being moved from Engine 8 on Huger Street to Engine 9 on Heriot Street, said the transfers were "obvious retaliation" by Thomas. Rivers also had spoken out about problems in the Fire Department.

"Since the fire we have had nothing to look forward to," he said. "The one thing that keeps me going is my station and the pride I take in that station. Now he's taken that away from me for no reason at all."

Speaking on behalf of Thomas, Mark Ruppel, the department's public information officer, said the transfers were done for no other reason than to ensure all shifts and stations had equal coverage.

"I think you can probably find some people who are happy with the transfers and some who are not," he said. "But nothing was done out of retaliation."

Reach David Slade at 937-5552 or dslade@postandcourier.com. Reach Glenn Smith at gsmith@postandcourier.com or 937-5556.