Update on the Northfield Fire Department and the Northfield Fire Relief Association: What’s the good, the bad, and the ugly?

Northfield’s Fire Department has been the subject of two Northfield News articles in the past week:

Nov. 8: Northfield Fire Department revamps how it selects leaders

Nov. 2: Northfield Fire Department has made "extreme progress" this year

Public Safety Director Mark Taylor’s Fire Department Roadmap upate (PDF of a Powerpoint) is available, too:

Northfield Fire Deparment Roadmap update

20 comments to  (Including 3 Discussion Threads) Update on the Northfield Fire Department and the Northfield Fire Relief Association: What’s the good, the bad, and the ugly?

  • 1
    Griff Wigley says:

    Looks like there’s still some unhappiness out there. Teri Knight, News Director at KYMN, wrote in a blog post today:

    David Hvistendahl, acting as a concerned citizen, was in a meeting yesterday wherein a group of citizens met to say they were upset with the “timing” of City Administrator Tim Madigan’s implementation of the change… Hvistendahl said that the “concerned” citizens would be speaking with individual council members to try to get a resolution on placed on the council agenda before years end that would put the process on hold until after the new council comes in.

    It’s not clear to me how Teri got this information about Hvistendahl. Was it from his show? Was she in the meeting with him? A private conversation?

  • 2
    Phil Poyner says:

    From my read of what you’ve posted, it sure sounds like some really positive things have been occurring within the organization. But I don’t find Chief Franek’s desire to have current officers “grandfathered” in their positions unreasonable. Is there a pressing issue that makes it necessary for those officers to compete for positions they already hold? If they have been carrying out their duties in a satisfactory manner, what would be gained by putting them though an interview process? I feel like I’m missing something.

    • 2.1
      David Ludescher says:

      Phil,

      You are missing something -- the rest of the story. From what I have heard, the entire restructuring is about power. It will be interesting to see how this plays out with the proposed joint fire district authority. When I get on the Council, I might get more information -- that is, assuming that the fire people aren’t too scared of getting fired to be able to speak. I am told that the “gag order” remains in place, at least implicitly.

    • 2.2
      kiffi summa says:

      Phil… I must concur with David … the “rest of the story” is what has been missing all along on the restructuring of the Fire Department.

      But what has also been missing is the Council discussion which goes beyond the 2-3 year old decision to bring both Police and Fire under one department head, the Public Safety Director, and to choose the current Police Chief to assume that role (please note: NO ‘diss’ to Mark Taylor) instead of hiring an administrative department head, and leaving the two Chiefs in place.
      A structural mistake, IMO.

      And at this point, one only needs to compare documents, conversations with fire dept personnel, and the nebulous Council discussions to find big holes in the ‘cloud’. Sort of some of the same holes that occurred in the conversation/process of the safety center, i.e. conflicting documents and conversations/discussions.

      But I think there is an underlying problem here that has not yet been fully apparent to ‘all’, and I think David also has that right, and unfortunately it’s “power”…
      Now the question is: what is the source of that power play ? and maybe another, for what reason ?

    • 2.3
      Griff Wigley says:

      David L/Kiffi,

      The restructuring process started with City Admin Al Roder and was affirmed by that Council. It was continued by the Council during the tenure of City Admin Joel Walinksy, and again by the current Council during the current tenure of City Admin Tim Madigan. Walinsky and Madigan got this handed to them, as did Mark Taylor.

      The Councils have recognized the problems with the old ways of running fire departments that have been prevalent throughout the state and the nation for over 100 years and have taken steps to fix them. Maybe the process could have been handled better but I don’t see this as a power grab on anyone’s part.

      • 2.3.1
        Curt Benson says:

        And, expanding on Griff’s remark about the alleged “power grab”: Michelle Soldo’s consultant’s report and the League of Minnesota Cities both strongly recommend the restructuring of the Fire Department (especially regarding the selection of the Fire Chief). The study and League’s letter are in the council’s packet dated June 28th, 2011. The League’s letter is “exhibit 6″.

        http://www.ci.northfield.mn.us/assets/p/packet208.pdf

        I think peddling vague conspiracy theories regarding alleged “power grabbing” city staffers is unseemly, especially when the real genesis of these proposed changes in policies is very clear, and easily accessible.

      • 2.3.2
        kiffi summa says:

        Griff… Initially, a consolidation supposedly for budget cuts, the restructuring of the Public Safety dept, (combining the two chiefs under Taylor) along with some other dept consolidations, came to the council at the end of Walinski’s term, and they voted to approve the proposed changes; since that time there have been various dept structure discussions where the council could have made some changes if they wanted, or saw a need to do so.

        Unfortunately no one was listening to the firemen from ‘Day One’ …

        The Fire Dept is not the only city dept, or affiliate, to be brought more closely within the tent. The Hospital, the NCRC, and the Library (which actually is a city dept but a separate type of function) have all been suffering under the exertion of what I call a desire for a more central controlling ‘power’.

        The three named entities all have deep connections to the city, but stand somewhat outside the inner circle depts of city hall, i.e. like community development …. and all three have had problems with more centrally located administrative ‘control’ in varying ways.

        The Hospital felt threatened with being sold…
        The NCRC /Senior Board is being pushed to take over the whole building. tenants, etc …
        The Library has been mixed with Community Ed and Rec, so that the job of Library Director, a fulltimer if there ever was one, has to watch over pool, hockey arena, soccer and baseball fields, etc. and I will feel better about that IF the job is again separated out and the Library Board and staff given the predominance in the hiring process, otherwise it will come too heavily under city hall, at the expense of the quality of the library services.

        At any time over the last four years the Council could have said ‘we don’t like the way this departmental consolidation is shaping up, as we see it in progress’, and taken steps to rectify the situation.

        Too complicated to write it all now, but this will be an ongoing problem, if not dealt with by the newly elected council.

      • 2.3.3
        kiffi summa says:

        Curt: no “conspiracy theories” involved… just a steady progression toward the consolidation of what I loosely term ‘power’ n the center of city hall.

      • 2.3.4
        David Ludescher says:

        Griff,

        I don’t know to what you are referring when you say, “The Councils have recognized the problems with the old ways of running fire departments that have been prevalent throughout the state and the nation for over 100 years and have taken steps to fix them.”.

        Are you suggesting that this council thought that there was a problem with the fire department? Did the fire department think that they had a problem that needed fixing?

      • 2.3.5
        David Ludescher says:

        Curt,

        It is hard for me to put much credence in that report. OSHA violations that require an overhaul of the fire department? I don’t buy it. And, it doesn’t seem to be supported by a single firefighter.

  • 3
    David DeLong says:

    Here I am showing my age again but Northfield used to have a Police Civil Service Commission authorized under some Minnesota Statute that gives the members absolute control and supervision over the employment, promotion, discharge, and suspension of all officers and employees of the police department. I remember the words because absolute control sounded to me like -- absolute power controls absolutely. I find those words absolutely scary and firmly believe in checks and balances.

    I recall one of the reasons to abolish the Commission was the thought that the Chief knew best who should be a Captain or Sergeant etc. Why not allow a Fire Chief to exercise the same prerogatives?

    If it is better management that the Fire Chief not be allowed to make appointments, wouldn’t it follow that it would be better management to not allow the Police Chief to make appointments in his department?

    I think the statute allows a city to establish a Police Civil Service Commission any time and I do believe a Fire Department component can be added.

    • 3.1
      Griff Wigley says:

      David D, I think the current situation is problematic because Franek was elected Fire Chief by the rank and file in the past and the contract the City signed with him is not easily terminated, which is why he hired Hvistendahl and why the City backed off.

      Consultant Soldo recommended a competitive hiring process for the other leadership positions, too, not just the chief position.

      I’m guessing that once Northfield gets a new fire chief via a competitive hiring process, that person will have significant say-so on the competitive process for department leadership positions, just like the police chief does in the police department.

  • 4
    bonnie pangburn says:

    Well, I just have to put my 2 cents in on this topic. Griff, thank you for pointing out that the appointment process used for years by our fire department has had council/city administration attention for some time. I surmise that in the spirit of “if it works, don’t fix it” there has likely not been enough attention to current hiring processes and the legalities that may go with them. Thank you for also noting that the old methods haven’t been unique to Northfield’s squad but rather that these processes have been, as you stated, ‘prevalent throughout the state and nation for over 100 years’.

    I don’t think there is any dispute that attention has indeed now been given and changes moving forward are indeed in place but I come to a screaching halt at the statement that ‘Walinsky, Madigan and Mark Taylor got this handed to them’. Wouldn’t the attention to insurable processes for the city be part of the city adminstrator’s job? And, how would it be part of the police chief’s job? Clearly, our police chief is held in very high regard by the administration, as well he should be, but shouldn’t his role be to oversee the functions of the police department?

    I wonder, Did/does Northfield only need a part-time police chief? Because it appears he has quite a bit of time to spend on fire department matters. Is Chief Taylor being compensated for his time spent on matters outside of police business but being conducted during police business time. Wouldn’t that be considered a point of concern for the leader of police as much, if not moreso, as for the police officers? Does the wearing of too many hats present potential conflict of interest issues? Shouldn’t those matters be of concern to the city?

    It’s very confusing to me, this cross-over of what is acceptable and to whom. To me, the lack of regard for the leaders of the Northfield Fire Department is shameful and pretty steadily contradictory. Coupled with the safety center debacle, I feel compelled to be better informed and more involved. Please forgive me if many of you have addressed these questions before. If you have done so and would consider a brief recap, I would be grateful.

    • 4.1
      Griff Wigley says:

      Bonnie, the vast majority of cities in MN have a full-time police chief and full-time police officers because of the nature of their work: crime fighting and crime prevention is a 24x7 job. That’s the not case for fires.

      So the part-time nature of fire-fighting in smaller cities often ends up under the auspices of a full-time public safety director. My point about “Walinsky, Madigan and Mark Taylor” was that it was our elected City Councilors who dictated that change, not a power grab by any of them.

      I’ve got a few other comments but I’ll stop there.

    • 4.2
      David Ludescher says:

      Griff,

      And, my point is that we now have a fire department being led by a policeman, who has less experience in fire fighting than any firefighter on the force. To make things really weird, every firefighter had to reapply for his job, even though every firefighter is more experienced than their leader.

      If all of this is supposed to make sense, it isn’t obvious to me. What is obvious is that the past city council, past administrator, and the police chief wanted and want a new building, and that the fire department was an obstacle to that happening. Suddenly, we have a new fire chief, Taylor. The end result -- a building for the police, but nothing for the fire department.

      And, let’s not forget that the power play can involve elected officials as well as the appointed officials. We saw that with the “financing” of the new police station.

      • 4.2.1
        kiffi summa says:

        An interesting take on the situation is that the city/council/staff is trying to have it ‘both ways’ in the whole matter of defining whether or not the firemen are city ‘employees’ or volunteers; the city staff/council says they are “employees’ and therefor subject to any internal rules, whatever.
        The firemen feel that they are ‘on-call paid volunteers’, as defined in the statutes, and therefor in a somewhat different role than employees.
        The firemen are obviously NOT full time paid employees, so how can they be submitted to those ‘rules’?

        When the city/council/staff changed the administration of Police/Fire to be under one person, a Dept. of Public Safety Director, they caused a rift right there, and it took a couple years for the ramifications of that to become more obvious with the Safety Center facility discussions, Osha report, etc.

        No one on the council/staff level is addressing this dichotomy of ‘employment’ status, at least in any substantive public way, and so numerous areas of conflict arise, such as the need to re-apply, and be re-hired, for the job you have been doing well for years.

        IMO, this is a Way Big Deal, and needs to be sorted out by the new Council immediately…

  • 5
    David Henson says:

    Seeing a history of Northfield fires per capita against expeditures over 50 years would be interesting. One might see if additional dollars are really impactful or if a point of efficiency was crossed where more is spent but results are similar.

  • 6
    kiffi summa says:

    Anyone interested in this … “good, bad, or ugly” should listen to the open mic comments at the 11.13. Council meeting. You’ll find them archived at KYMN, inside the regular meeting portion. (it’s archived in two sections: regular meeting and the work session) .

    Don Mc Gee read from various documents; those giving conflicting information about the revision of the hiring process/ selection of officers, and questions are definitely raised about what is going on ‘behind the scenes’.

    The Council did not reply, as they rarely do to open mic comments, so those questions are still all hanging out there…

    This issue is as important as the new Police Safety Center building… don’t let the firemen down!

  • 7
  • 8
    bonnie pangburn says:

    Thank you Kiffi for sharing this source of information. I agree completely with you that this issue and the regard of our present and long serving firemen cannot be allowed to be swept under the proverbial carpet.

    I have tried to envision my boss approaching me to say that after my 12 years of employment with him, he’ll now need me to “re-apply” for my position! I have to think many of your faces might hold the same expression as mine with this thought. Let alone mention that my position is not in addition to my full-time work but rather is my full-time work.

    Further, the charitable events these men and their families spearhead should not only be recognized but I would guess the causes they benefit might be concerned at the possibility of the loss of these contributions. Because, I wonder…when was the last time you saw a city sponsored, conducted by volunteer hours Christmas Sharing dinner (this coming Saturday at the VFW, no fee for the dinner with donation of a $20 children’s gift) or a door-to-door drive to stock the Northfield Food Shelf? Has our city factored in the funds raised that the firemen conduct on their own time, i.e. DJJD bingo, the duck race and the annual Firemen’s Dance when they tally their figures? We know they have questioned the funds raised but have they alloted for their annual replacement? And, if so, by what means?

    Has anyone read of measures to fill these voids? I fear the future of these endeavors may be limited given the low morale and rapid retirement of fire department leaders.

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