Union president reacts to new ‘provisional’ fire chief

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OCEAN CITY — While members of FMBA Local 27 are pleased that Mayor Jay Gillian announced the appointment of a new fire chief last week, John Murphy, the union’s president, said his members are dismayed by the process and its lack of permanence.

“We’re disappointed that it took the mayor so long to do this,” he said, of last week’s appointment of former Capt. Chris Breunig. “At the end of the day, in my opinion, this is all a monetary issue.”

The union, he said, filed grievances with the city and a desk audit with the New Jersey Civil Service Commission shortly after Gillian appointed Deputy Chief Charlie Bowman as an acting chief to replace former Chief Joe Foglio last November. Foglio retired Oct. 1, 2011.

“Making an agreement with the deputy chief is outside our contract,” Murphy said.

He said a civil service hearing last week revealed that Bowman was not permitted to serve in both capacities.

“The gist is that we should not have to get to this point,” he said. “What happened now, the appointment of a new chief should have happened in October last year, after Joe Foglio retired. They picked a new chief now all of the sudden because civil service said they had to.”

City business administrator Mike Dattilo said he could not discuss personnel matters relating to a civil service hearing, but did say that the civil service hearing held last Monday “clarified something for the future” and the timing of selecting a new chief was not directly related to the civil service hearing.

The appointment of Breunig, Dattilo said, is provisional. Before he can be permanently appointed, he must take an upcoming civil service test for the chief’s position.

Previously, Murphy has expressed concern over the provisional position, stating that it puts the fire department in limbo. In late June, before the appointment was announced, Murphy said the union fears that it will end up back in the same boat it was at that time: without a permanent chief.

“Now we could possibly go another 10 months with a provisional chief and after that it could be somebody else,” he said. “There’s no finality in what’s going on.”

Dattilo said the three current deputy chiefs, including Charlie Bowman and five or six captains would be eligible; and candidates could sign up sometime next month for the November test. Dattilo said “it’s very possible, and most likely” that some of the eligible candidates may express an interest in taking the test.

“Anyone in the fire department, with five years of supervisory experience, that would be a captain or deputy chief, could sign up for the November test,” he said. “The job gets posted through the civil service system.”

Dattilo said once the test is taken, a list comes back to city officials.

“There has to be at least three names,” he said, adding that there can be numerous “extenuating circumstances” that could affect how those three candidates are determined. “The top three generally are reachable and appointable. It’s possible that the candidate could be someone who already interviewed for the job.”

Dattilo said if no other candidate expresses an interest in taking the test, then Breunig would be named the permanent chief.

A similar situation unfolded with the appointment of Police Chief Chad Callahan. When the civil service test was offered after former Mayor Sal Perillo appointed Callahan, no other officer stepped forward to take the test.

Murphy said the issue with the chief was made more complicated after City Council opted not to consider a salary ordinance that would have increased the salary of the fire chief. As it stands now, the deputy chiefs earn more than the fire chief.

“The decision becomes a monetary one,” he said. “If the salary changes, I wouldn’t be surprised if they took the test.”

“If the salary ordinance had passed, in my opinion, Joe Foglio would not have retired. I believe that he would still be chief.”

Once Foglio retired, the position was opened up to the deputy chiefs, but since they were already earning more than what was allowed for chief, Murphy said he believes they all turned it down.

“Obviously the deputy chiefs are the most qualified for chief based on the position that they hold,” he said. “You increase your responsibility as you move through the ranks; the same with the police department.”

“The decision should be made on experience and qualifications,” he said. “To have to skip ranks to do it because of monetary concerns, I don’t think is the right way. There is a natural progression, and they skipped the ranks. They moved a captain into the chief’s position purely for monetary reasons.”

Murphy said “this has nothing to do with Chris Breunig.”

“Chris has great qualities,” he said. “He brings a different skill set. We want to move forward, we need to move forward. The stance the city took by putting Charlie in two positions was wrong. We’ve been dead in the water for 10 months. Now we have a provisional chief and possibly a new chief after that.”

“The union will support the decision, but it’s possible that there will be others taking the test,” he said. “We as a department need to move forward. In a perfect world, Chris remains chief until he retires, but this situation is more complicated than that.”

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