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Chiefland Fire Chief James Harris’ name was on the tip of more than a few tongues last week after the news that after a year on the job his paycheck is growing by more than 20 percent.
Last summer, during budget talks, the City Commission asked him to cut the fire department budget and he refused saying it would harm service.
Fast forward to the chief’s evaluation and contract renewal in February. Harris asked for and got an extra $9,000. Harris justified the pay request, according to the official minutes, by saying when he took the job he did not realize the problems within the department, plus he has continued his education. He also cited demands of the job as being so great it affects his personal life.
Harris told the commission he wanted compensation despite a freeze on hiring, promotions and raises.
He said it was not a raise, but “parity” with a police chief and a city manager, both of whom have put in several years on the job.
Deputy Chief Gene Stockman said the money was in the budget and it just needed to be moved around. Stockman, who has been through “a lot of chiefs,” said he is not willing to lose Harris and start over.
Assistant Chief A.D. Goodman said other department heads are not doing their jobs for less than $50,000 and do not have the same demands on their personal time.
During the discussion, the chief offered to resign after Mayor Teal Pomeroy questioned how the fire department budget came to have the spare $9,000. Pomeroy challenged the chief to just say he wanted a raise. But Harris clung to his “parity” position and said city firefighter “pay is lower than everyone in the city.”
The commission voted 4-1 to give the chief his raise. Pomeroy dissented.
But, the matter may not be settled.
The evaluation and re-negotiation of the chief’s contract were noticed under the state’s Sunshine Law for a 5:30 p.m. special meeting that adjourned at 5:55 p.m. without the contract issue settled. The commission held its regular meeting — also properly noticed — at 6 p.m. and adjourned that meeting at 7:12 p.m.
The commission then resumed the special meeting it had adjourned at 7:16 p.m. and by 7:55 p.m. had approved the raise.
Anyone who was at the two earlier meetings surely had to think all business was over with the adjournments.
The city attorney may say it was OK to hold the third meeting because of its proximity to the two meetings held in the Sunshine, and he might even cite a court ruling or a state attorney general’s opinion to back up his opinion.
But to resume a discussion of this type — especially in these trying economic times — after adjourning twice in one night and after most in the audience had left, just gives the appearance that everything was not on the up and up.
There’s no mulligan in this game as there is in golf.
The commission should give proper notice, hold the discussion in public, and vote again.
That would give the assurance that city business is properly conducted.