Charleston Mayor Joe Riley has tapped Yvonne Evans, one of his staunchest supporters, to head City Council's Public Safety Committee, a long-dormant panel that suddenly finds itself in the center of a raging debate over shaping change in the fire department.
Riley has sparred with some City Council members in recent weeks over council's role in helping to rebuild the fire department in the wake of last year's Sofa Super Store tragedy.
The debate came to a head Monday night when Councilman Jimmy Gallant resigned from the Public Safety Committee in protest after Riley scuttled a planned meeting to discuss controversial promotions and transfers in the Fire Department. Gallant's departure eliminated a vocal challenger from the committee and left Riley with an open seat to fill.
The mayor wasted little time in appointing Evans to chair the committee. She has served on council for nearly 20 years and is currently vice chair of the committee. Louis Waring, another Riley ally, was appointed to replace Evans as vice chairman. The mayor appointed freshman Councilman Aubrey Alexander to fill the open seat. Riley and Councilwoman Kathleen Wilson round out the panel.
Riley is expected to address the changes during a televised address at 6 o'clock tonight to update the community on the status of changes in the fire department as the one-year anniversary approaches.
Alexander said he is too new to know exactly how the committee will operate in the future. Personnel matters such as transfers are outside of the committee's domain, he said, but there are likely other ways the panel can take positive steps. Overall, he intends to make sure that the city follows through on the recommendations put forth by the city-appointed panel of experts that studied the sofa store blaze and the fire department.
"We've got a 300-page report. Let's not close it and put it on a shelf," Alexander said. "Let's use it to fix that department. It's what everyone wants."
Evans has said she supports the position that the committee has only narrow authority on matters related to the fire department. Giving council members a larger role in city personnel matters would be dangerous because employees in the fire and police departments should never have to wonder whether their jobs are influenced by political agendas, she said. "It's a sensitive issue because you don't want to politicize public safety. There should never be a question."
The fire department, which lost nine firefighters in the June 18 blaze, is undergoing a sweeping transformation of its equipment, tactics and operations in response to recommendations from the city-appointed panel of consultants. Riley's speech is expected to touch on the department's progress to date and the search for a new fire chief to replace outgoing Chief Rusty Thomas, who retires later this month.
For some city firefighters, Thomas' pending departure signals a symbolic shift in the department's transformation from an aggressive, tradition-bound outfit to a more cautious, safety-oriented unit that makes protecting firefighters a top priority.
But the relative calm that followed Thomas' announcement was short-lived. In the waning days of his tenure, Thomas announced a flurry of promotions and transfers, renewing some of the hard feelings and controversy that have hounded the department for much of the past year. Some firefighters who were transferred said the abrupt moves were payback for having spoken out against Thomas or criticized the pace of their department's efforts to embrace modern firefighting practices.
Since the fire, Riley has periodically used live televised addresses to speak directly to citizens and offer his unfiltered interpretation of events and issues surrounding the tragedy. Often, these come just before or after times of turmoil or controversy. In September, for example, he appeared on television to highlight improvements to the fire department and its goal of becoming a national model. The speech came two days before state workplace safety officials handed down fines and violations against the city for safety lapses at the sofa store fire.
This week's speech comes on the heels of Monday's contentious meeting over promotions and transfers in the department. Concerns over the timing of the personnel moves prompted Gallant to call a special meeting of the Public Safety Committee to discuss the moves. But that gathering on Monday quickly devolved into a heated exchange over whether Gallant had followed proper procedure in calling the meeting. Riley said the meeting was illegal.
Gallant accused Riley and city attorneys of making up rules on the fly in an attempt to stifle debate over the controversial transfers and promotions. Gallant resigned from the committee in protest but said he intends to remain a voice for firefighters.
Riley has staunchly defended the nearly 50 promotions and transfers as necessary and fair. And he has rebuffed attempts by Gallant and others to meddle in the fire department's personnel issues.
Read more in tomorrow's editions of The Post and Courier.