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City manager: No impropriety in fire chief hiring

By Staff | Nov 19, 2013

City Manager John Szerlag’s investigation into a complaint concerning the hiring of Fire Chief Tim Hayes has been concluded with no finding of impropriety.

The city could, however, improve the process it uses to hire people, Szerlag found.

The internal administrative investigation determined that Hayes’ credentials for being hired as fire chief were sufficient for him to keep his job and that Hayes’ appointment of the department’s public information officer, Michael Heeder, was also proper.

The city manager’s office was asked to investigate how Hayes was hired after it was alleged that the job opening posted that did not match his resume.

The city hired an outside consultant, Colin Baezinger, to recruit the top candidates for the position. Szerlag approved a generic education requirement for the position.

The city did not have a human resource director at the time, and hadn’t had one in several years, Szerlag said, but the description of the job from the department had a more specific education requirement.

“The city can modify the qualifications at any point during the interview process. That said, we do have a problem with the hiring process in the HR department,” Szerlag said. “There are many things we want to clear up in the process.”

Szerlag said looking strictly at the qualifications in the job posting, only two of the eight finalists qualified. Using the more generic qualifications, Hayes was qualified.

“He has a bachelor’s degree, the equivalent of a masters in the fire service academy and the fire executive academy,” Szerlag said. “He’s qualified for the position he holds.”

Szerlag said he investigated Heeder’s hiring before asked to through concerns with Hayes knowing the candidate and possibly being part of the panel that was part of the hiring process.

The city’s new HR director Lisa Senego was instructed to follow up after Heeder was hired for a higher pay rate than offered. The administrative review concluded Heeder was hired properly, Szerlag said.

“There was an advertisement and candidates interviewed and an offer made. I’m not an expert on matching up dollar amounts with qualifications, but I was advised the pay was commensurate with experience,” Szerlag said.

Szerlag added that Hayes should have recused himself from the panel, though he had no problem with employees recruiting qualified people to work for the city.

Senego and city public information officer Connie Barron checked Heeder’s qualifications based on industry standards and found he did meet the standards.

Heeder said he was unaware of the first two candidates who turned down the position, but had the opportunity to review their qualifications and they were impressive.

The problem, Heeder said, was that while he doesn’t hold a masters degree, the other candidates also lacked in areas.

“My benefit is that the public information and educational aspects I teach at the state level, and with 30 years experience as a firefighter and 13 years as a PIO and community outreach, I possess the education and experience that exceeded the requirements,” Heeder said. “The decision to hire me makes me pleased because I’m happy here representing great men and women who have gone too long without the recognition they deserve.”

But with all the problems that plagued the process and the way the city’s job classifications are structured, Szerlag said the buck stopped with him.

“You can delegate authority, you can’t delegate responsibility. I’m responsible for everything,” Szerlag said. “But I also delegate accountability and there was an issue with the hiring process which was systemic and goes back several years. All I could do is fix the problem.”

Hayes was named to take the helm of the Cape Coral Fire Dept. in April, replacing Bill Van Helden, who retired.

In October, a retired battalion chief claimed Hayes falsified his resume, didn’t meet the requirements for the job and hired a buddy over more qualified candidates for the department’s PIO position.

On Saturday, Hayes released a statement denouncing those claims. On Monday, he reiterated his qualifications.

“Everything he put in there, I meet all the qualifications. All you have to do is call the fire college because I can be an instructor overnight,” Hayes said.”Nothing I put down was false.”

As far as the Heeder hiring, Hayes said the job was offered to two others, both of whom turned the job down. Another pool of candidates was pulled and Heeder came up, having worked with Hayes in Gainesville.

“He was PIO of the year for the state of Florida last year. He’s a stand-up guy. We interviewed five people and he came up first,” Hayes said, admitting he told Heeder about the job opening but that’s all. “The report speaks for itself.”

Heeder, who worked as a subordinate under Hayes when both were in Gainesville, said he initially turned down Hayes’ heads-up in the aftermath of receiving that award, saying he was happy to be in Bradford County working in emergency management.

“But it got me thinking. I spent my entire adult life as a firefighter. I missed the camaraderie and the brotherhood and the opportunity to work for a large fire department,” Heeder said. “I thought what harm would it do to apply. I was offered the interview, came down and fell in love with the city.”

Heeder said he made the right decision, the city made the right decision, and that he plans to work for the city for a very long time.

“Anyone who knows me knows I will put the agency and firefighters ahead of myself. I will continue to do that because as passionate as they are about their jobs, this job is the most satisfying I’ve worked as an adult and I’m happy to be here and plan on spending a long time here,” Heeder said.