Selectmen Meet With Consultants To Discuss Ideal Fire Chief
By: Alex Scofield
The Town of Bourne needs a fire chief who has strong leadership ability, communication skills, and the savvy to manage the department’s financial and physical assets, selectmen said Monday evening.
The board met for a workshop with Mark A. Morse, president of MMA Consulting Group of Brookline, who was chosen by the town to help them construct a practical exam through which candidates for the chief’s job will be ranked.
The practical exam, known as an assessment center, comprises both written and role-playing components that test the candidates’ knowledge of the position as well as their ability to put that knowledge to work.
On Monday evening, the board described to Mr. Morse what qualities they were looking for in their new chief.
According to Mr. Morse, the description of the ideal candidate given by the board would become the framework for the assessment center exam.
It was clear from the discussion that the controversy that has swamped the town’s fire department since last fall had formed the board’s model of an ideal chief.
The town and union have feuded frequently in the last year over the disciplining of former Lieutenant Kelli J. Weeks and the town’s subsequent investigation into allegations that she was seen in uniform at the residence of a known drug dealer.
They have also butted heads over the lack of a permanent fire chief and the placement of a reduced fee animal clinic at the Sagamore Beach Fire Station.
Selectmen Chairman John A. Ford Jr. said that most of the problems the board had faced over the last year, especially in the case of the Lt. Weeks investigation, could have been avoided if the fire chief had been able to conduct a thorough investigation as soon as concerns were raised.
“One of the problems they’ve had at the fire department is a lack of documentation [of complaints],” he said. “The chief needs to be able to conduct an investigation.”
Mr. Ford, who is the town’s former police chief, said that initial complaints about Lt. Weeks were ignored or not properly documented, and that eventually Town Administrator Thomas M. Guerino needed to step in and direct the town’s legal counsel to conduct an investigation.
“[The town administrator] can’t be wasting his time doing that,” Mr. Ford said. “[The fire chief] needs to be able to handle his own department. He has to know what they have a right to and what they don’t, and the ability to conduct an initial investigation from there is most important.”
Mr. Ford added that the candidate also needs to show an ability to “separate himself from his subordinates,” so as not to forget that he was in control of the department.
Board member Mary S. Meli added that, if the department were to ever again deal with a string of controversies like it did over the past year, the new fire chief would need to be able to deal with the media.
“The department has gotten such a bad rap and the new chief would need to be able to put a good spin on things,” she said.
The assessment center exam also needs to test the candidates’ ethical makeup, said board member Stephen F. Mealy.
Mr. Morse said testing for such qualities is not as easy as gauging a candidate’s ability to handle a budget or deal with scheduling. “We can’t tell you if someone is ethical or not, but I can tell you if they respond properly in the context of the assessment.”
Mr. Mealy also asked that the exam measure the candidates’ understanding of labor policy, in hopes of bringing in a chief who could reduce the amount of union grievances the town has had to deal with.
“We have spent an ungodly amount of money on labor issues,” Mr. Mealy said.
Mr. Morse told the board that advertising for the position could begin in about two weeks, and that the assessment center would take place sometime in mid-September.
The town would then be presented with the final scores of each of the candidates.
Mr. Morse said the scores typically range between the low 70s and low 90s, with candidates in the low 70s being marginally qualified and those in the 90s being considered “supremely qualified.”
The candidates’ scores would be based almost solely on their performance in the exam, with a very modest amount of points being added for those who are currently serving as fire chiefs or for those who have served in the armed forces.
“The highest amount of points I’ve seen added for experience is in the area of .6 of one point,” he said.
“The way the assessment center works is, you walk into the room and we assume you’re qualified. You’re only judged based on your performance.”
Mr. Morse also pointed out that, unfortunately for the town, the civil service process would not allow them to view the candidates’ scores on individual parts of the exam, only their overall score.
“It’s something I’ve fought over with the state’s Human Resources Division for some time,” he said.
Ms. Meli asked, then, if it were possible to weight the portions of the exam that the town valued most, so that the scores would reflect the candidate’s competency in areas that really mattered to the town.
“We won’t know if the candidates scored 90 on areas we don’t care about,” she said.
Mr. Morse said it would be possible to weight the exam toward the areas that the town cared about the most.
He added that, once the final scores were sent along to the town, Mr. Guerino could look at their assessment center scores along with their qualifications in determining who would be the best fit for the job.
Mr. Morse said he anticipated 10 to 12 candidates would apply for the position.
Mr. Guerino added that the town would require a fee from anyone who wanted to take the exam, in order to ensure that only serious candidates went through the process.
At the conclusion of the meeting, Mr. Guerino said he would be following up with Mr. Morse to discuss a concrete time line.
Mr. Mealy asked that Mr. Guerino return to the board with that time line at their next business meeting on Tuesday, August 24.
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