BROOKSVILLE — The search for a new public safety director entered the next phase when county officials last week began telephone interviews with candidates who live outside the area.
That doesn’t sit well with Robert Rae, president of the Hernando County Professional Firefighters Union, who said this latest move shows the county selection committee has no confidence in existing fire personnel.
“It concerns me that they’re looking outside,” Rae said. “That tells me they don’t like anyone internally.”
But Commissioner Dave Russell said, contrary to some critics, there is no concerted effort to bypass internal applicants who already have been interviewed for the job. County Administrator Len Sossamon and his team want to talk to some external candidates before making a decision, Russell said.
“He obviously is interested in casting a little bit broader net and that’s fine,” Russell said. “He certainly will be able to justify his choice. But the main thing is that we give him the leeway to do that because it’s his job.”
Russell said individual commissioners can offer suggestions on the selection but, ultimately, they must allow Sossamon to make the final decision.
“Three weeks ago we gave him direction and that’s what he’s doing,” Russell said.
George Zoettlein, assistant county administrator of budget and business development, said four internal applicants have been interviewed for the vacant position: Mike Nickerson, interim county fire chief; Kevin Carroll, assistant county fire chief; Frank DeFrancesco, a county fire station captain; and Brent Blankenship, a district fire chief.
Sossamon and assistant administrators Brian Malmberg and Russ Wetherington are conducting the interviews with external candidates.
Rae said he believes it was public pressure applied on county commissioners that forced the interview team to consider the local candidates. There never was any intention to include Nickerson, Carroll or others from the county, Rae said.
Rae said the county needs to promote from within and it makes sense to hire Nickerson for the job because of his experience.
County Commissioner Jim Adkins also supports Nickerson and has asked Sossamon to hire him — even though the interim director does not have a bachelor’s degree, which is a requirement for the position.
Last month the search for a new public safety director temporarily stopped when County Commission Chairman Wayne Dukes asked Sossamon to restart the advertising process following what he called a somewhat embarrassing series of missteps.
Dukes said the county failed to follow policy by not posting the position in-house for three days and by not completing a position requisition form listing the position’s qualifications.
Rae filed a grievance against the county and cited violations of county policy during the advertisement stage. That grievance was rejected.
Mike Rampino, the county’s former public safety director, resigned in March for a fire chief’s job in Manatee County. Nickerson, who had been deputy chief, became interim director until a final decision is made.
Sossamon stated in an email that if his selection group decides more interviews are needed — beyond those conducted in the first round — those will be done and a preferred applicant should emerge from the list, Sossamon said.
Following successful background and reference checks, the top person will receive an employment offer. The selection does not have to be ratified by county commissioners.
The salary range for the position is $72,488 to $116,858 annually.
Rae hopes that the group making the recommendation will at least bring it before the county commission at a public meeting for discussion, though it is not required to do so.