City council, mayor come closer to ousting fire chief

Lexington Fire department's leader did not resign by mayor's deadline

bfortune@herald-leader.comjkegley@herald-leader.comMarch 2, 2011 

The Urban County Council and Mayor Jim Gray on Tuesday moved several steps closer to ousting Lexington Fire Chief Robert Hendricks.

In a 13-0 vote, the council agreed to put a motion of no confidence in the leadership of the fire department on its Thursday night docket.

Hours later, Gray said he had asked the city's law department to examine "initiating formal proceedings" seeking Hendricks' dismissal, according to a news release. Such proceedings would require a hearing before the council, which will make the final decision.

The release said Gray would appoint an interim fire chief within the week. For now, Public Safety Commissioner Clay Mason will oversee day-to-day operations of the Division of Fire and Emergency Services.

The move comes a day after Gray called for Hendricks' resignation. The mayor had given Hendricks until noon Tuesday to submit his resignation. Instead, Hendricks requested more time.

Hendricks was scheduled to appear before the council to discuss the fire department's excessive overtime during Tuesday's council meeting, but he did not attend.

Assistant Chief Mike Gribbin stepped in, talking at length about issues the department has been facing.

Overtime was among the issues cited Monday when Gray asked Hendricks to resign.

After the overtime discussion, the council went into closed session for nearly two hours to discuss the no-confidence resolution.

Outside council chambers after the closed session, Gray said he recognized that deciding on a course of action could be "challenging for Chief Hendricks, and I'm respectful of that. But we will need to move on. "

In calling Monday for Hendricks' resignation, Gray said his "chief concerns are lack of leadership, failure to manage the division's budget, especially overtime, and division morale."

In addition, the administration of former Mayor Jim Newberry had requested an investigatory report "concerning sexual harassment within the division" and had given a draft of the report to Gray's administration. That investigation is continuing.

Two public readings and another vote are required before the resolution of no confidence is officially adopted, according to a news release from the mayor's office.

Hendricks did not return calls for comment.

Gray said in his release Tuesday that he is convinced that the community needs new leadership in the fire department. Gray reiterated that he is concerned with "the lack of communication and leadership exhibited by Hendricks, his failure to manage the division's budget, and the division's morale, all of which affect public safety."

"These are demanding times. Demanding times require strong leadership," Gray said. "This position requires the highest level of leadership. Regrettably, it has not been demonstrated by Chief Hendricks."

Earlier at Tuesday's meeting, council members said they were aware of budget overruns in overtime expenditures, but the council was seeking clarity for conflicting numbers.

In a copy of the report on firefighter overtime that Hendricks was scheduled to present on Tuesday, his figures indicated the department would need an additional $91,000.

Two weeks ago, when council member Kevin Stinnett asked the fire department how much the division would need in additional overtime funds to complete the fiscal year, the figure was close to $420,000

During his presentation Tuesday, Gribbin said both figures were correct. The department has spent $91,000 on overtime in fiscal year 2011 and will need an additional $420,000 to complete the fiscal year.

Council members apologized to Gribbin for having to "step into the lion's den" but pressed him on why the fire department had overshot its budget.

Council member Doug Martin told Gribbin it "concerns me greatly" that the fire department knew its overtime budget was inaccurate and that "there was a sort of conspiracy of silence not to disclose this to the council."

Council member Ed Lane said he found it appalling that the city was going to have to come up with several hundred thousand dollars more for overtime.

"Where are we going to get that money? You're forcing the government to either raise taxes, to lay off people, or take what little money we have left in the rainy day fund to pay the bill.

"I'm just very, very upset with that because that is very bad management by the fire department," Lane said.

Gribbin told the council there was virtually no overtime from 1977 until the first collective bargaining contract in 2004 between the city and the police and fire union representatives. The current contract, which comes up for re-negotiation at the end of the month, dictates such requirements as when firefighters may take overtime, how much they are to be paid and other stipulations that increase the overtime budget.

"We're just working with the collective bargaining agreement we received. We can't tell somebody they can't take off," Gribbin said.

"Today is about dollars," Stinnett said. "We ask every other department to make sure they come in at budget and not go over. That's why it's no different for fire. We're just asking for the same."

Fire Lt. Chris Bartley, president of Lexington Professional Firefighters Local 526, said collective bargaining was not to blame for excessive overtime. Understaffing caused by the city's refusal to hire enough firefighters was at fault, he said.

Bartley echoed Gray's statements that low morale in the department was caused by concern about a lack of leadership. He said Hendricks' resignation would be a welcome change.

Still, Bartley said low morale hasn't affected the fire department's service.

"This is just politics," he said. "We're still out there doing our job."

Herald-Leader staff writer Karla Ward contributed to this story.

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