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Waukesha's fire chief search finally underway

Illinois-based Voorhees Associates to find candidates

Nov. 20, 2012

City Administrator Ed Henschel made his stance perfectly clear on the city's fire chief search.

"We all know what the term interim means," said Henschel at the Nov. 8 Common Council meeting. "I need a fire chief."

While many of the Common Council members had differing opinions on how to find and fund for the city's next fire chief, the aldermen, nonetheless, voted, 9-5, to enter into a contract with the Illinois-based Voorhees Associates search firm.

For the last eight months, Assistant Fire Chief Steve Howard has been operating as the interim fire chief after longtime chief Allen LaConte retired in March.

Since then, the Police and Fire Commission, a group of citizen volunteers who are responsible for hiring a fire chief, have said that the only way for the legal process to be accurate is for a search firm to be hired.

A search firm should also be utilized to find the best candidate, regardless if it is in-house, the commission has stated.

Henschel said it will cost $16,300 for a search firm. And he explained that because only about $18,000 has been spent out of the commission's 2012 budget of $55,000, it is well within their means to bring in a search firm.

Advocates state case

Ald. Paul Ybarra and Ald. Joan Francoeur were two of the council members who agreed.

"We use search firms on a regular basis because people who are appointed are volunteers and are not professional search firms," Ybarra said. "So I'll vote to spend some money for a professional service that will bring in the best and brightest, even if that person is right here locally."

Francoeur added, "If I were an applicant for a job, I don't want any special provisions given to me and exceptions made. I want the right to earn that job through the process that everybody does. So therefore, if I am an internal candidate and I do succeed in being selected, that means I was as good as the best across the country."

Many of the aldermen on the Common Council, however, who did not support a search firm earlier this year - it was 7-7 in an April vote - maintained their stance at the meeting that the commission should look from within their department first.

However, Ald. Terry Thieme and Ald. Richard Hastings, who voted against the recommendation in the previous vote, said while they were reluctant, they voted in favor of having a search firm.

Others didn't budge

Ald. Duane Paulson did not change his vote.

"It would be an insult to the Fire Department if we don't look at them first," Paulson said.

Ald. Andy Reiland added that he knows two or three candidates within the city's fire department who are qualified.

"For us to search outside our own employees is a disservice to them," said Reiland, who did not offer names. "I think we need to send a message to our city employees that we promote from within and we recognize those that have aspirations and work hard to better themselves within the city."

Cummings called it "counterproductive" to do a national search since the last time the city hired a search firm to find its latest city administrator it found one in its own backyard.

The city spent about $11,500 to tab Henschel as its city administrator after going through two search firms.

However, City Human Resources Manager Donna Whalen countered by stating without that search firm (Voorhees Associates) the city would not have found Henschel, who was contacted by Heidi Voorhees about the position.

"I'm trying to make a point," Cummings quickly fired back.

"So am I," Whalen replied.

Cautioning the council

Whalen also cautioned the council that they would "overstep their bounds" if they dictate to that body, a separate entity, what kind of search they would conduct.

Cummings, however, said that because the council has power over the money, she would support a regional search to limit expenses.

However, Mayor Jeff Scrima and Whalen said this wasn't the case and that at question wasn't the money, but whether to allow them to enter into a contract with a search firm.

Francoeur said doing so was the best policy.

"We don't need specialization every day of every year but when we need it we hire them for a small period of time to give their expertise," Francoeur said.

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