El Dorado Hills Fire District Deputy Chief Jim O’Camb will become interim chief when outgoing Chief Brian Veerkamp steps down Jan. 19.
The decision was announced before a packed house at a special Jan. 5 board meeting, and allays concerns of firefighters and administrators — many of whom were present — that the board would name recently retired Folsom Fire Chief Dan Haverty to the interim chief position without their input.
Instead, Haverty, an El Dorado Hills resident, was named as a consultant to the board in an “undefined capacity.” It’s assumed that he’ll help with the selection process for a new chief, a task the board hopes to accomplish over the next 120 days.
Board President Greg Durante, who sits on the subcommittee responsible for the selection process along with Director John Hidahl, said he thinks 120 days it do-able, “if we keep our foot on the pedal.” The subcommittee has yet to meet.
“We don’t have a defined process for this,” added Hidahl. “We’re pulling it together as we go, taking it one decision at a time.”
The process for naming an interim chief is thankfully simpler. Durante explained the options: “We can ask the outgoing chief to stick around until we find his replacement, we can take the next in line as an acting chief, or we can hire an interim chief.”
Outgoing chief Veerkamp, who announced his retirement Dec. 9, confirmed by phone after the meeting that the board didn’t consider option 1. “I told them they could extend it (his last day) or hire me back, but they chose not to. There was really no discussion of it.”
Deputy Chief O’Camb, 49, and Battalion Chief Dave Roberts, 52, have both thrown their hat in the ring for the “permanent” chief position.
According to Haverty, a veteran of several chief replacements, it’s normal for a board to conduct a regional or even national search, despite the presence of strong internal candidates.
Along with the welcome advice, Haverty delivered an eloquent overview of his qualifications, answered questions from the board, and described how he might contribute as an interim chief.
“The budget is your big issue,” he said. “It’s a big issue everywhere.”
“My budget in Folsom steadily declined every year I was there, and we had no reserve. Cuts were real cuts, and they were tough. It’s painful to work through the solutions to those problems, and I’ve done that.”
Throughout the meeting board members reiterated their intent to keep the process transparent, but few in the room seemed to see it that way. E-mails leading up to the meeting indicate that many in the department, especially the volunteers, were put off by the board’s willingness to bring in outside assistance without soliciting input from Veerkamp, the other chiefs, the union or the volunteers.
Neither Veerkamp, O’Camb or Roberts addressed the board, but several other department members spoke up, including the heads of the Firefighter’s Association (a departmental support organization) and the firefighter’s union, and several members of the public.
All the speakers indicated great respect for Haverty and, with one notable exception, all supported filling the interim chief position from within, none more succinctly than volunteer firefighter and Todd Thalhamer.
“This is about transparency and integrity,” he said, “and it’s easy to solve.”
Pointing with exaggerated drama at the men in question, he continued. “There’s a gentleman right in front of you (O’Camb) that can handle the interim chief job and one in back (Roberts) that could do so as well. Hire him (Haverty) as a consultant, put your process on the table and move forward.”
“Community. I believe that a fire dept is a public leader as an organization in the community. I’ve seen great compassion and service for this community from this organization.”
Haverty has lived in El Dorado Hills since 87, and currently resides in the Governors West Village. His fire service resume extends beyond a stellar fire service career. He taught strategic planning in the California Special District Association’s leadership academy for several years, and still teaches two USC masters classes in public administration.
His address to the board was soft-spoken and gracious. He made it clear that he was willing to assist in whatever capacity was needed, “or not at all.”
He rose through the ranks at Sacramento Metropolitan Fire District and its predecessor, the American River Fire District. He was appointed chief of the Folsom Department in 2007, became fully vested in the retirement system and took advantage of a two year retirement buy-out in Oct., 2009.
He called the experience a capstone on his fire service career, and said he enjoyed the support Folsom City officials, his staff and firefighters.
In closing, Haverty summed up his leadership style in three words: mission, members and community.
“Mission. We are charged with a mission in the fire service, and it’s evolved over time and gotten more complex.
“Members. The members get us there. They are the most important resource we have to execute the mission. They don’t come first. The mission comes first. But without a motivated, cared for, educated, well equipped membership organization we can’t execute our mission.
“In the current budgetary climate, we must ask ourselves ‘Are we accomplishing our mission; are we taking care of our people and are we serving the community.’” He said. “It’s not a complex way to operate.”
Rookie Director Lou Barber was the first board member to publicly question the wisdom of an outside choice. “I look at this department and I see excellence …I’ve experienced it in my own home,” he said. “The department has an attrition plan. It seems like we have an obligation to our own team … to give them a chance to show their leadership skill.”
Barber then asked Haverty if, as a consultant, he would recommend filling the interim chief position from within, or going outside.
“As a resident, I want the best fire chief,” said Haverty. “If the best one is internal, then promotion from within sends a wonderful message to the rank. If you work hard and lead well you have a place to go in this fire department.”
Haverty made a subtle gaff in an otherwise impressive presentation while explaining that he maintained good relations with the firefighters’ union and a personal friendship with its president, stating that the powerful Local 522 union, which represents firefighters in virtually all Sacramento fire agencies up to and including Folsom, is the “same union” that El Dorado Hills firefighters belong to.
Capt. Tom Anselmo addressed the board and identified himself as the president of the El Dorado Hills Professional Firefighters Local 3604, repeating “Local 3604” for emphasis.
Anselmo told the board his union feels the organization has the executive talent in place to run “business as usual,” at least for 120 days. “No one could be expected to gain an understanding of how our department functions, our strengths, or our weaknesses and formulate a plan for improvement in only 120 days,” he said.
Director Barbara Winn took issue with Anselmo’s choice of words. “It’s not business as usual,” she said. “We don’t have the funds that we’ve had in the past. We’re in extreme situations at the county level, at the JPA, and with our own budget.”
Division Chief Brad Ballenger also spoke up, indicateing a willingness to take on additional responsibility. He questioned the cost of bringing in an outside interim chief, as did several other speakers, and also questioned how the issue was handled.
“The number one goal of our organization is unity and I feel that communication broke down and sacrificed unity,” he said. “This came out of the blue, and after it happened there wasn’t closure.”
Ballinger was also concerned the board’s approach has implied, perhaps inadvertently, a lack of trust in the current administration. “Are you going to seek input from Chief Veerkamp, the admin staff or the union?”
Former firefighter Mark Ackerman next weighed in. “When the fire chief walks off the deck, the number two guy steps up. That you’re even discussing this sends a deplorable message to Jim (O’Camb).”
Again, Winn took issue with the tone of the discussion. “It bothers me that one hiccup causes the unity of this department to falter so bad,” she said. “We’re not trying to be bad guys. This is no reflection on the current administration.”
Capt. Dave Merino, the former union president who’s currently on an extended administrative leave, was the lone advocate of hiring Haverty as interim chief, calling the upcoming fiscal problems “an obstacle of biblical proportions,” and questioning O’Camb’s 14 months of experience as deputy chief.
Noting that the selection process can take longer than anticipated, he said, “Chief Haverty has the experience to fill in quickly until the right person comes along. Sometimes you have to do the unpopular thing.”
Before retiring to closed session Winn admonished firefighters in the audience for not communicating their concerns to the board members directly, and for rarely attending board meetings. “All this unity talk and nobody shows up at the meetings.
“There’s a lot more to running a fire department than Santa Runs and senior lunches,” she said. “There’s a lot going on that you don’t know the details of.”
In addition to the potential consolidations with cash-strapped rural districts in El Dorado County, “We’ve got Sac Metro calling asking if we’d consider consolidation.”
That fact, combined with Haverty’s sudden appearance on the scene and the presence of a union official from Local 522 at the last two board meetings, fed the concern of department members, especially volunteers. Most fire service unions have abolished their volunteer programs, opting for paid reserve or training programs that are far less inclusive.
Afterward, O’Camb said he was honored for the opportunity to serve as interim chief, and appreciated the board listening to the speakers.