Baltimore Fire Chief James S. Clack announced Friday that he will step down, ending a five-year tenure in which he oversaw historic lows in fire deaths but implemented budget cuts that critics said compromised safety.
Clack, 52, the first chief hired from outside the department's ranks, said in an interview that he is resigning in July to be closer to family in Minnesota. He said this year's budget is the first he's had without substantial cuts, and he wants to leave on a high note.
His move surprised some, as Clack had agreed to a contract extension last year that would have kept him in the post through 2018. Clack, who is paid a salary of nearly $165,000, will serve through the end of July.
"I think we've accomplished a lot," Clack said. "The command staff has certainly made this a safer place to live."
Clack's resignation is the second by a top Baltimore public safety official in the past year. Police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III left last summer to spend more time with family after a five-year tenure in which he oversaw a steep decline in the city's homicide rate.
Clack came to the Baltimore Fire Department in 2008 amid a national recession. He immediately confronted a fiscal crunch, cutting back on the number of fire companies working at any given time. Last year, Clack closed two fire companies for good, drawing criticism from department members and union leaders.
Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake kept Clack on as fire chief when she took office amid a scandal that forced her predecessor, Sheila Dixon, out of office. Since then, he has led the department through extended litigation over a firefighter pension overhaul and a labor battle over a cost-saving measure to institute intermittent 24-hour shifts.
In a statement, Rawlings-Blake said Clack's legacy will be one of improved safety. She noted a program, which Clack has pushed heavily, to distribute free smoke alarms to city residents.
"Chief Clack worked successfully to increase our focus on the safety of residents and fire personnel," she said, noting that the 12 fire deaths in the city last year were the lowest ever recorded. In 2007, 34 people died in Baltimore fires.
"Chief Clack's commitment to improving the overall operations of the department has prepared us for further achievement in the coming years," she said.
Rawlings-Blake appointed Jeffrey Segal, the department's assistant chief of operations, as Clack's interim replacement.
Rick Hoffman, president of the firefighters union, said he respects Clack but thinks the native Minnesotan had too little experience to run a big-city agency.
"On a personal level, I think Jim Clack was probably one of the finest men I've ever met in my life, a churchgoing man faithful to his family," Hoffman said. "On a professional level, I think ... he was swimming upstream since the time he put his boat in the water."
Clack spent too much time appeasing the administrations of Dixon and Rawlings-Blake and didn't do enough to fight cuts to personnel, Hoffman said. The union leader said department morale is low.
"I simply don't think he fought the administration tooth and nail, and he was just probably too easily swayed by, 'Hey, I need $5 million from your budget,'" Hoffman said.
Mike Campbell, president of the union that represents the department's officers, said he is surprised by Clack's departure, given the recent contract extension.
Campbell said he felt it wasn't "the right thing to do" when Clack was hired from outside the department and that the decision "didn't sit well" with officers. Since then, Clack has tried to keep the unions involved in decisions, Campbell said, despite their frequent disagreements.
He said he hopes Segal will continue to keep the unions involved.
Segal, 44, a Baltimore native who has risen through the ranks of Baltimore's department since 1987, has a master's degree in the science of management from the Johns Hopkins University. In his present post, Segal, who makes a salary of $130,000, oversees field operations, including fire suppression, emergency medical services and hazmat response.
"I love the city; I enjoy being in the city," Segal said in an interview. "And being able to be in charge of the Fire Department is a privilege that usually doesn't come to people."
Segal's elder son Brett, 25, also is a member of the department.
Segal, an African-American, takes the helm after years of racial tensions in the department. Those tensions were boiling over at the time of Clack's arrival, after a cheating scandal that implicated two black officer recruits.
The appointments of Clack and Bealefeld raised questions about white men heading both major public safety agencies in a predominantly black city.
Also at the time, the department suffered the loss of two firefighters, including the death of a cadet during a training exercise. A scathing report on that incident concluded that the agency had violated 50 national safety standards.
Clack, a 22-year veteran of the Minneapolis Fire Department, was chosen from among 40 applicants to lead the Baltimore agency.
Clack said it was "too bad" that Dixon "didn't feel that there was enough talent within the agency to promote from within."
He pushed new education standards for officers in the department — Segal earned his undergraduate and master's degrees while on the job. Clack said Friday that Rawlings-Blake has several qualified candidates to pick from in Baltimore, including Segal.
"I told her that I felt that, if she could, it would be good to look on the inside first," he said of his discussion this week with the mayor. He said he surprised Rawlings-Blake with his decision to leave.
"She was surprised, but she's known ever since I took this job that I would eventually go back to Minnesota," Clack said. He will return there with his wife, Rose, and will help care for her elderly parents.
City Councilman Brandon M. Scott, vice chairman of the Public Safety Committee, thanked Clack for his service.
"He was fire chief at a time when the city was in dire straits financially and the department had an all-time low in fire deaths," Scott said. "You have to give him credit for that."
Clack said he is too young to consider himself retired, and that he might pursue interests in teaching at the National Fire Academy or other fire-related institutions.
He and his wife, a spinner and weaver, have purchased a small farm in Minnesota, and have plans to raise animals such as llamas and alpacas to shear. Clack was raised on a farm and has "always wanted to get back to rural life," he said.