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Interim fire chief introduced to council

By Staff | Nov 26, 2013

City Manager John Szerlag introduced interim Fire Chief Donald Cochran to city council during the board’s regular meeting Monday night at City Hall.

“The level of service in the city will remain the same. We have great men and women ready to serve you while we work through this process,” Cochran said.

Szerlag told council Cochran may be running the department for a while.

Szerlag said he has known Cochran since starting as city manager last June and that Cochran has the respect of the people who work for him and also his colleagues, and that he is glad Cochran accepted the appointment.

“I have no immediate plans to contact a consulting firm or to advertize for the position,” Szerlag said.

When pushed on whether he would make Cochran the permanent chief, Szerlag said he will see how he performs and make a decision from there.

A consulting firm, Colin Baesinger, was paid $17,000 for the search that eventually led to the hiring of former chief Tim Hayes, who resigned Friday after eight months on the job.

Hayes cited personal reasons, stating Monday that his integrity being questioned was the main reason he left, and that his resignation was in the best interests of the department.

Hayes’ qualifications for the fire chief position and the hiring of Michael Heeder as the department’s public information officer, with whom he work when both were employed in Gainesville, were the subject of a complaint by a former city employee and subsequent administrative review.

No impropriety was found.

Szerlag told council Hayes chose to leave and was not pushed from his position. He also said the resignation had nothing to do with the fire union, whose position on Hayes was “neutral.” Hiring Hayes was not a mistake, he added.

Brendan Fonock, president of the fire union, said he was shocked when he heard Hayes had resigned.

“Obviously, he’s been under accusations, but we didn’t see it coming even when the investigation showed there was no wrongdoing,” Fonock said.

Fonock said the union and Hayes were going through the feeling-out process when he resigned, and said the new chief is someone the rank and file can get behind.

“We’re not going to skip a beat, we’re still going to provide great service to the community,” Fonock said. “We look forward to working with Chief Cochran.”

In regards to Heeder, his hiring was considered proper, though Szerlag said he was bothered by the perception of favoritism and still is.

“The best way to correct that is to fix the process. We have a systemic problem in our hiring process,” Szerlag said, adding that he is considering a consultant to look into the human resource department, such as what Zucker does for planning and zoning.

“I’m going to ask our resource director (Lisa Senego) to see if we can secure funding to hire a firm like that to look at our hiring process,” Szerlag said.