ReNae Bowman, former Crystal mayor and Crystal citizen representative on the West Metro-Fire Rescue District board, resigned abruptly during the Feb. 20 work session after a motion was approved 4-3 to keep the fire chief search internal.
During the meeting, the Board of Directors discussed the hiring process for the district’s new fire chief.
Sarah Larson has been the district’s acting chief since June, when she was appointed during former Chief Scott Crandall’s medical leave. A separation agreement with Crandall was approved Sept. 19.
The Board of Directors finalized a draft of the chief job posting and discussed whether to recruit internally or externally, a discussion that raised a lot of opinions and ultimately led to Bowman’s departure.
“If we do go internal, we should follow the same process,” New Hope City Manager Kirk McDonald said. “There should be a formal application, formal interview, background check and psychological check.”
When Crandall was appointed chief, the Fire Board had not required a formal application process, but rather made the announcement as a Board that he was chosen.
“We have a duty to be very careful in this process and include a wide pool of candidates,” New Hope City Council Representative Dan Stauner said. “An external posting may bring a fresh perspective.”
Bowman agreed with Stauner saying that “if you always do what you’ve always done, you always get what you’ve always got.”
“…Make sure the process is open and it pulls the very best that our tax payers pay for. The very best,” she said. “No matter who it is, the board is open-minded enough whether it’s internal or not, the best candidate will rise to the surface.”
Crystal City Council Representative Mark Hoffmann encouraged the board members to look at the history of the district and think about hiring internally.
“When we have an internal candidate who is good and ready to go, you’re foolish not to [hire internally],” he said. “You know what you’re doing, you’re covering your bases. Everybody who wants to can apply, but only one person will come to the top of my mind. One person has the qualifications.”
Stauner said that although he knows the acting chief has done a good job, it doesn’t mean he wants to “foreclose other options” until he knows what they are.
“I think we have a set of skills as a board that can handle the [hiring] process,” he said. “We can do it as a board instead of delegate it. We need to do it for our own credibility and our own ability to look our citizens in the face and say ‘we’ve done the best we can. We’ve made the right choice.’”
“If involvement of the board members isn’t important, why are we here would be the logical question,” added Bowman. “I would ask that we understand about setting the tone and relying on the people. It really makes the board look like it’s not essential. If we ourselves aren’t involved, why are we here? In order to mend the cities, we need to do this together – it’s part of the healing process that needs to take place. Through this process, we are making our declarative statement that we will heal and go forward.”
However, McDonald said that the opportunity to hire internally would still call for an extensive interview process and if the board was not satisfied with the candidates, the job would be posted externally.
“Anne [Norris, Crystal City Manager] and I have worked with Sarah for 10 months and it’s been a breath of fresh air,” he said. “Her communication is unbelievable. We meet twice a month and go over operation issues and budget issues. There are no gimmicks or cover ups. I hate to lose what we have. I feel we’ve moved forward in a positive direction since last June.”
After hearing from McDonald, Bowman said she was irritated to be put in an “either or” spot saying that “it is more of the same stuff” and by not externally posting the job, it would “continue to perpetuate that hatred, that internal fighting.”
“We need to open it up and say we ran a fair process to move forward with a new chief,” she said. “My message to Sarah is I strongly encourage her to apply, but let her stand out in a pool of applicants and let her be as strong as you think she is. It’s going to be the only way she will have long-term credibility. If you give it to her, you’re giving half of her credibility away.”
Gary Laurant, the board’s seventh member and president said that his concern with an internal posting only was that the communities may view the decision as more of the same.
“I’m uncomfortable saying Sarah,” he said. “If we do it internal, that’s one thing. Internal could be 10 candidates that we know nothing about. Maybe [New Hope] Mayor Hemken meets the qualifications. You have to say internally initially and if no candidate, then externally. We go through the whole process and they have to meet every qualification.”
Stauner felt as if the board had no choice but to post the job both internally and externally and be done with the fun and games.
“Frankly, if that offends Sarah and she chooses not to apply, to be blunt, tough,” he said. “She’s not irreplaceable. We are all expendable.”
“We’ve kicked this horse dead enough,” New Hope City Council Representative John Elder said eventually calling for a motion – internally or externally. “Let’s call a vote and move on to further discussion.”
A 4-3 vote to post the position internally first and externally if no decision has been reached was passed.
“With great protest, I think this organization is hanging itself,” Bowman said.
“It makes it hard to accept internally without knowing who’s out there,” Stauner added. “I’m not saying how I’d vote, but I think it’s a big mistake.”
Laurant made it clear to the board that although the job will be posted internally to all West Metro-Fire Rescue District employees, it doesn’t mean that as a board, they have to select internally. He said they will work hard to make sure the process works as well as it can.
However, Bowman, returning to her seat after speaking with her husband privately, had one more thing to say on the issue.
“I would like to tender my resignation, effective immediately,” she said, gathering up her belongings. “For all the name-calling directed at me, for all of the e-mails, for all of the work and hours and blood, sweat and tears and for us to refuse to open it up …
“This is a group that does not want to hear itself and keep itself closed. I will not be forced, so I am out. I have appreciated my time with everybody but I refuse to be insulted like I have been insulted. Now I’m a totally private citizen. I’ve laid on the sword for us to close this process when we’ve had a discussion. God bless you people.”
Norris said that the Crystal City Council will acknowledge Bowman’s departure and discuss her replacement at an upcoming March work session. Bowman was the Crystal citizen representative for two years.
The West Metro Fire Chief application will be posted internally to all employees Feb. 27 to March 13.
Internal candidates will be reviewed and interviewed in March.
Contact Anna Woodwick at [email protected]