Gallatin officials have chosen a new fire chief from West Tennessee.
The Gallatin City Council and Mayor Paige Brown voted 6-2 during a special-called meeting Tuesday to offer the job to Jeff Beaman, assistant fire chief for the Germantown Fire Department. If accepted, his starting salary would be $125,000.
According to his resume, Beaman has a master’s degree in emergency services management from Columbia Southern University in addition to more than 30 years of overall experience in the fire service. He has been in his current position since August 2011.
“He’s a really good fit for the department,” Brown said following the meeting. “They have often said that they would like to have a firefighter’s fire chief and I think they’re going to get that with this gentleman.”
Beaman, along with recently retired Chicago Fire Commissioner Richard Ford, were the only two finalists considered for the position Tuesday after Sumner County Emergency Medical Services Chief Greg Miller withdrew his name from consideration.
While officials complemented Ford on his experience and accomplishments, several members of the council noted the similarities in size of the Germantown and Gallatin fire departments as a reason why they felt Beaman would be a better overall fit for the city.
“I felt that he was from… an area that was comparable to ours,” Vice Mayor and At-Large Councilman Shawn Fennell said about Beaman. “I feel it would be easier for him to adjust to this size of a town and budget that we’ve got.”
The decision Tuesday came one week after city leaders were unable to agree on who to hire for the position during a meeting that has been heavily criticized by the public for its lack of decorum.
Brown described the previous meeting on June 1 as “an anomaly” that she was “embarrassed” and “disappointed in.”
“That is not how we typically act towards one another,” she added. “I know that we all serve with love for the city, certainly for our employees, for our fire department and our citizens.
“I’m hoping that we can move forward, make a good decision this evening and give our firefighters a wonderful leader like they deserve.”
Despite Brown’s request that the vote Tuesday be unanimous to show “full support” for Beaman, District 3 Councilman Jimmy Overton and District 5 Councilman John D. Alexander did not support his nomination.
The decision, Overton said, was due to “salary purposes only.”
“I’ve got a problem with paying somebody that kind of money when we’ve got a 10-year public service (police) chief that doesn’t make $125,000,” Overton said earlier in the meeting. “It just doesn’t make sense.”
While Brown said the salaries for the two positions were comparable, some officials said they still wanted to discuss the issue further at a future meeting.
Funding has also been approved to complete a new pay study within the next year for all city departments, including police and fire.
Interim fire chief resigns
At the start of the special-called meeting Tuesday, city leaders were given a two-page resignation letter signed by interim Gallatin Fire Chief Tracy Townsend.
In it, Townsend said he was “proud and honored” to have served in the role to and described the experience as a “dream come true.”
He added that despite being able to make improvements in some areas of the department, he was “unable to implement the necessary changes because of the constant opposition I encountered.”
“What I found in getting to know the dynamic of each and every fire hall and shift is that it is clear that our city has not dedicated the resources… necessary to ensure stability in our employee base,” Townsend wrote. “Our firefighters, due to this neglect, seldomly stay long enough to build the trusted relationships necessary in the fire department, leaving Gallatin with a young unseasoned staff that needs guidance and leadership, overall low morale and a high frustration level collectively.
“The people of this city will inevitably pay the price for your lack of support, as bright, qualified people continue to leave the department.”
Townsend said he observed a general lack of leadership in the department and a mistrust of elected officials, particularly the mayor’s office, that has resulted in firefighters feeling unsupported, unheard and unappreciated. He added that a lack of equal or competitive pay made it difficult to build and/or maintain a strong, effective and content department.
“Without the support from the mayor, not even a Ph.D. will be successful in the position,” Townsend wrote. “The success of the fire chief will not depend on any level of education, it will depend on his/her ability to relate to the firefighters, communicate those needs to the council and mayor, and fight for the tools desperately needed to perform the task of a firefighter.”
Brown pushed back on the former interim chief’s accusations Tuesday, telling officials that the only request from Townsend she had not been able to fulfill during his brief tenure had to do with a supplemental pay issue for firefighters that she did not have the authority to approve.
“I don’t feel like he got resounding noes from me or anyone else,” she added. “We always want to help. It just takes a process. I am disappointed to hear that he won’t see through the interim role because that leaves us back where we were, but that is not something that we can address in this meeting.”
Officials again urged to follow the city’s hiring process
Townsend, a retired 28-year veteran of the Metro Nashville Fire Department, was chosen to be interim fire chief for the city in March shortly after the resignation of former Fire Chief Victor Williams.
However, he was not included in a group of candidates who were interviewed for the position last month since officials said he did not meet the minimum requirements outlined in the job description.
Townsend was still nominated for the job last week but was one vote shy of receiving the five votes needed to be hired.
“I think it’s very important that we choose someone that has been referred to us,” District 2 Councilwoman Eileen George said last week, echoing a sentiment shared vocally by Brown that the city should only hire a candidate recommended by the expert panel.
Regardless of his formal education, Townsend wrote in his resignation letter that he was “as qualified as any other candidate for the fire chief position.”
“However,” he added, “it has become evident to me that politics means more to this council and mayor than what is best for our city.”
City Attorney Susan High-McAuley had warned officials in recent weeks that the city could be sued if an applicant was hired who did not meet the minimum job qualifications. She also said it would undermine the hiring process for every department in the city.
Prior to the vote Tuesday, Gallatin Chief Information Officer Lori Smiley addressed the council and urged them to not ignore the city’s hiring process for department heads.
“I have been asked (by employees) that if policies that are in place to ensure they are treated fairly can be arbitrarily disregarded, what does that mean for them?” Smiley said. “To randomly make exceptions to a policy you have voted in place, and make the statements that polices are just suggestions, is hurting the morale of the city’s employees.
“I offer these comments up with the utmost respect for the jobs that you do, but mostly out of concern for the city and its employees and those we serve.”
Following Townsend’s resignation, some members of the council expressed their gratitude for the former interim chief and his time with the city.
“I thank you from the bottom of my heart for lifting the morale in the fire department,” Alexander said. “I felt within my heart that he was a good candidate and I just appreciate you Mr. Townsend for what you did for the fire department.”