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Grievance filed against Hernando over fire chief search

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Published:   |   Updated: April 11, 2014 at 12:02 PM

BROOKSVILLE - The application deadline for hiring a new public service director closes Friday and about 38 people have expressed interest.

However, the process, which was already stopped and restarted due to procedural missteps, took a few more turns this week.

On Wednesday County Commissioner Jim Adkins said he asked County Administrator Len Sossamon in an email to bypass the interview process and hire interim Chief Mike Nickerson to the position.

Then on Thursday, the president of the Hernando County professional Firefighters Union said a grievance was filed against Sossamon that cited policy violations and asked that no external interviews for the job be held.

The grievance states that the county changed the job description several times and did not interview local candidates before posting the position externally.

Promoting Nickerson, who has served as the county's fire chief for most of his 29 years with Hernando County Fire, would keep the county from spending roughly $100,000 on another chief's salary, Adkins said.

"I'm just trying to save money and use a proven person," he said.

Adkins said it "would be nice if the other commissioners would jump on board" with his proposal.

Nickerson has been filling in as public safety director since March 7, when former director Mike Rampino resigned and took a job with a fire department in Manatee County.

Nickerson has been with the county since January 1985 and served the majority of those years as fire chief, before the county changed the title and gave the job to Rampino when the Spring Hill and county fire districts merged.

Adkins said Nickerson will be retiring in a few years and it makes sense to allow him to continue as director.

Kevin Carroll is currently serving as assistant county fire chief. Both Carroll and Nickerson have applied for the top job. Adkins said the two-chief arrangement makes better fiscal sense than hiring a third person to head up public safety.

Hernando County advertised in-house for a candidate but decided to also post the ad outside to cast a wider net.

It was that decision to again go outside, despite receiving a half dozen applicants from local fire officials, that prompted the firefighters union to file a grievance, said Bobby Rae, president of the Hernando County Professional Firefighters Union.

The grievance states that the job description was changed three times in the past two weeks with no oversight from county commissioners. Policy states that internal recruitment should be done first to determine if there were eligible candidates.

"This was not followed, (due) to the fact that five applicants applied on the original job description," the grievance said. "The administrator was wrong and ended the process and started over."

Then the job description was changed in the middle of the process and that limited the field to two local candidates and disqualified Nickerson, the grievance said.

"This is not proper procedure," the grievance said.

Rae said the county also failed to interview the local candidates before posting the advertisement externally. He called that a "slap in the face" to the local candidates, especially Nickerson and Carroll, who he was told have been deemed ineligible because they don't have a college degree.

"(Nickerson) has been the chief over 15 years, has made two mergers happen, has had no bad evaluations," Rae said. "What a kick in the teeth. They disqualified these guys before interviewing them."

On March 31, County Commission Chairman Wayne Dukes asked the county administrator to restart the advertising process following what he called a somewhat embarrassing series of missteps in advertising the job.

Dukes said the county failed to follow policy by not posting the position in-house for three days and for not doing a position requisition form beforehand that listed the qualifications for the position.

Rae said the county did the right thing by restarting the process but has again violated policy by not interviewing the internal candidates before going outside. Rae said that sends the message that none of the locals are qualified.

"They were good enough to do these jobs all these years," he said. "Now all of a sudden, they're not good enough? What changed?"

There was no such attempt to go outside for applicants when the vacant Human Resources position became open after the resignation of Cheryl Marsden, Rae said.

The county received just two in-house applicants for that position and decided not to advertise outside. They chose Jerry Haines, who was the county's workers compensation and safety manager.

"What standard does this set when the administrator and the board of county commissioners violate and change their own policies mid-stream?" the grievance states.

The grievance is recommending that all external candidate applications be placed on hold until it is decided that nobody within the county, including Nickerson and Carroll are qualified to hold the title of public safety director.

The county's policy states that if the county does not expect to receive at least three qualified internal candidates, "they may post the position externally simultaneously with the internal posting."

Public Information Manager Virginia Singer said all applications will be reviewed to determine eligibility. As of now, nobody who has applied has been eliminated from consideration, she said.

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