Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and her pick to run the city Fire Department said Monday they hope to hire and promote more minorities and women — even as the department cuts positions.
In introducing Niles Ford, 48, as her selection to lead the Baltimore City Fire Department, Rawlings-Blake called a lack of diversity in the agency a "persistent problem." She pointed to Ford's work as fire chief in Lincoln, Neb., where he created a plan to hire more minorities and women.
"Dr. Ford was also a leader in opening the door for women and minorities in Lincoln, promoting the first female battalion chief in their history," Rawlings-Blake said. "He personally recruited African-Americans, Asians, Latinos and female firefighters to ensure all Lincoln citizens were receiving an equal opportunity to serve."
Ford, a career firefighter who most recently was the manager of a small city in Georgia, will be the city department's second African-American fire chief.
He replaces James Clack, who had been chief since 2008. Clack resigned in July, saying he wanted to be closer to family in Minnesota. Assistant Chief Jeffrey R. Segal has been leading the department in the interim.
Ford, who also was a deputy fire chief in Fulton County, Ga., said he was inspired to advance in the profession by former Baltimore Fire Chief Herman Williams Jr.'s book "Firefighter." Williams, the city's first black fire chief, led the department from 1992 to 2001.
Williams was at City Hall to welcome Ford to Baltimore on Monday, but he did not speak publicly. Ford called Williams an "informal mentor of mine."
Ford, who will be paid $165,000, begins work Jan. 22. He was among a "handful" of finalists selected by search firm Gans, Gans & Associates, according to Rawlings-Blake. The Florida-based firm was paid $14,000 to conduct the search.
The fire officers' union and some City Council members have questioned why the mayor didn't select a candidate within the agency — including two deputies who applied — or from a larger jurisdiction.
Ford's most recent position as a city manager ended amid discontent with his performance from the City Council in Chamblee, Ga., which has a population of 10,000. According to news reports, the Chamblee City Council issued a preliminary resolution saying its members had lost confidence in Ford.
In July, the council approved a motion to rescind that resolution and accepted Ford's resignation. The council agreed to pay Ford eight months of salary with benefits.
Ford said Sunday he agreed to resign after he refused to approve permission for a building on a council member's personal property that Ford believed violated zoning laws. Ford declined to name the council member. Rawlings-Blake has said his stance showed "integrity."
But Chamblee City Council member Dan Zanger said no one incident led to Ford's departure. Zanger said he believes Ford will be a good fire chief, but he wasn't as knowledgeable about business development issues as the Chamblee council wanted him to be.
Zanger said Ford was a good manager but needed to be quicker at learning the job.
"He needed to keep up with the speed with which we were growing," Zanger said. "We wanted to be in fifth gear. Niles was still in third gear."
Ford holds a doctorate in organization and management from Capella University, a for-profit institution that teaches most of its classes online.
He began work in public safety in 1991 as a dispatcher in Bessemer, Ala. A year later, he became a firefighter there, rising to the rank of captain in Bessemer Fire & Rescue.
Rawlings-Blake pointed to Ford's outside experience as a positive quality.
"He's led through change," she said. "He's been successful in diversifying a department, which has been a persistent problem that we've faced in Baltimore." She said the city was "blessed" with several strong candidates, acknowledging that "we had excellent internal candidates to choose from."
"I'm finding there is a lot of interest in working in Baltimore," she said.
Officials said the Fire Department is currently 32 percent African-American, a level it has maintained since at least 2011. The city population is 65 percent African-American. This year, the city cut a division in the department developed to increase recruitment among black city residents. Clack defended the move at the time, saying the agency was shrinking and doing very little hiring.
Ford must also oversee the implementation of a new schedule for firefighters. On Jan. 1, they begin working 47.5 hours a week — the first such schedule change in decades — while eliminating 140 positions through attrition.
City Councilman Robert W. Curran said he was glad to hear about a focus on increasing diversity. Curran said he was also pleased to see a nominee from a smaller jurisdiction.
"I have complete confidence in the vetting process that Rawlings-Blake's administration uses," Curran said. "They came up with a nominee that has good character and is a quality individual. There's always going to be the push to have local in-house hiring, but it speaks well to have somebody come in with a new vision. You want to get good people on the way up."
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