Hiring Process Bias for Veteran Hartford Fire Chief
By Andrea Comer / Inquiring News-CT
Hartford – (8-21-14) – The recent debacle regarding the city’s quest to select an Assistant Fire Chief has heightened tension in the community, particularly regarding the perception of how Deputy Chief Terry Waller is being portrayed. In the midst of news articles and blog comments, Waller’s qualifications – which are impressive – have not been highlighted. This episode is not about qualifications. It isn’t even about residency. It is about process.
Chief Waller is one of six deputy chiefs in the department. He is the only one who lives in the city. He is also the only one who stepped up when Chief Carlos Huertas issued the call for a Deputy Chief to take an interim Assistant Chief role. Deputy Chiefs are union employees, meaning they qualify for overtime. Assistant Chiefs are not, meaning the salary is the salary, no matter how long the hours are. He has been an interim Assistant Chief since then, just as Chief Huertas was an interim Assistant Chief under then-Chief Edward Caseres.
The city’s Municipal Code states that all appointed and unclassified city employees should live in the city. But that rule does not apply to new employees or appointees during the first six months of employment. The posting for the Assistant Fire Chief position had a clause that not only was inconsistent with the Municipal Code, it had never before in recent memory appeared in a City of Hartford job posting. That clause required applicants to prove they were residents of the City for at least three months. It also made the position eligible to only one candidate: Chief Waller. Since no present Deputy Chief other than Waller stepped up to take the Assistant Chief’s position, some question whether Waller would have had any competition for the permanent post. Process.
The results of this bad idea have been a character assassination of Waller and questions of nepotism because Waller’s fiancée is Corporation Counsel Saundra Kee Borges, who has repeatedly stated that she had nothing to do with Waller’s promotion this time or last. When Waller was appointed Deputy Chief, some contended that a position was created for him. However, the Deputy Chief whose role Waller assumed had gone out on disability and it was clear based on his injuries that he would not be returning.
The blowback from the decision quickly prompted the city to repost the application and remove the clause. So Waller has another opportunity to apply, as do the other five eligible applicants. And he may ultimately get the job if the others are unwilling to acquire a Hartford zip code. Or if the same personnel who had no interest in the interim post opt to sit out the permanent opportunity.
Waller, who was promoted to Deputy Chief of Emergency Services in November 2012, received a Fire Officer credential through the Center of Public Safety Excellence and was just the second Fire Officer Designee in the State. To apply for the credential, an applicant must earn 100 points in education and experience covering seven components including employment, professional development, technical competencies and a certification statement. In addition, Waller has worked in all areas of the department, including Suppression, Training and Special Services. He has 27 years with the department, and has served as Firefighter, Lieutenant, Captain and Deputy Chief. He has a degree in Fire Technology and Administration, a Bachelor’s in Human Services, and graduated from the Executive Development Institute (EDI) at Dillard University.
Aside from Waller’s qualifications, there are exams he had to take and pass to ascend to his current position. Passing is the important part, scoring less so; that isn’t Hartford’s opinion, that is the opinion of the International City/County Management Association’s Managing Fire and Rescue Services handbook, which believes that the best fire departments have diversity in terms of motivation, belief in the organization and training. In other words, the applicant who scores the highest may not be the ideal candidate. As a longtime resident of the city who led the Special Services Division, which was specifically developed to foster relationships between the department and the community, Waller fits the bill.
Ultimately, a misguided process opened the floodgates for criticism of the candidate, not the process. It also prompted many members of the Fire Department to insist Waller was being attacked not only because of his relationship but also because of his race. The Phoenix Society, the Greater Hartford branch of the NAACP and the Greater Hartford African American Alliance issued a joint statement indicating their support for Waller.
This year, Hartford’s first African American Fire Chief John B. Stewart, Jr. published “Hard Climb Up the Ladder,” which recounted his highs and lows in ascending to the fire department’s top spot. Some believe that many of the lows that occurred decades ago remain alive and well in the ranks of the City’s Bravest. This situation has reinforced that while many strides have been made since Stewart’s entry into the Department, there is far to go to ease feelings of fairness. ( Inquiring News is awaiting reply for comments from Mayor Segarra, Fire Union President, Hartford’s HR Director and Hartford Fire chief). See Inquiring News Wednesday’s 8-27-14 for full story.