Every once in a while, I will hear something that makes me wonder if city managers and mayors ever read newspapers, or if they simply rely on 2-inch by 4-inch screens for news blurbs or 52-inch screens for dramatic pictures repeated on television? Maybe “news” just doesn’t matter anymore.
At a news conference later today, D.C. Mayor-Elect Vincent Gray will name Sarasota County (Fla.) Fire Chief Kenneth Ellerbe as the district’s next fire chief, replacing Dennis Rubin.
I understand that all’s fair in love and politics, but this decision is wrong for a department that has shown great progress and promise with Rubin at the helm. Once placed in bottom tier of EMS programs across the county by USA Today, the department clawed its way back to prominence, adeptly responding to the 2009 Metro Rail crash. Even FIRE CHIEF columnist Bruce Evans predicted that, “In the next three to five years, the District of Columbia will have one of the premier fire and EMS systems in the United States.”
Let’s take a closer look at Ellerbe. D.C. Fire hired Ellerbe in 1982, and he last served there as fire administrator before taking the chief’s job in Sarasota in 2009. Six months later, however, reports surfaced that Ellerbe was “on unpaid leave” from D.C. Fire. It turned out that there was a signed agreement “between the [District of Columbia] and Sarasota County“ that allowed Ellerbe to remain employed by D.C. Fire through his 50th birthday in April 2010, which would enhance his retirement benefits to as much as “an additional $600,000.”
According to Sarasota County Fire Department personnel who served under Ellerbe’s predecessor, Chief Brian Gorski, the agency’s once thriving EMS-oriented service took a hit when Ellerbe arrived in town.
“[Ellerbe] is totally not into EMS,” said an officer who asked to remain anonymous. “The average age in our community is 70, so we were very into responding to strokes and geriatric procedures. Ellerbe claimed he had an open-door policy, but nobody would trust him. Everyone fears for their jobs.”
The officer also said that no one in the department — not even the county fire administrator — knew that Ellerbe was looking for a job or had accepted going back to D.C.
The situation makes me wonder how much thought and vision goes into hiring a fire chief. Thankfully, it isn't that often that we get to watch a train wreck, but who will the real victims be? Watch the news.