Puzzling Choice in Baltimore City

By Barry Rascovar

Jan. 2, 2014 — WHY IN THE WORLD would Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake pick a small-town official to run the city’s 3,700-member Fire Department, an agency that has been beset by tensions and controversies?

The new fire chief, Niles Ford, may turn out to be a great choice but his resume suggests otherwise.

He’s only run one, 300-member fire department — in Lincoln, Nebraska, a college town that doubles as the state capital. Lincoln is less than half the size of Baltimore. He did win praise for his budgeting skills and bringing calm to a troubled department.

City Manager in Georgia

Ford left his last post as city manager of Chamblee, Georgia (population: 15,500) under political pressure. The town’s African American population is just 7 percent (Hispanics constitute 60 percent of residents). Chamblee’s median household income is $55,000 — versus $40,800 in Baltimore.

Niles Ford, new Baltimore Fire Chief

Niles Ford, new Baltimore Fire Chief

The entire budget for running Chamblee, a suburb of Atlanta, came to $14 million. Baltimore’s Fire Department budget alone is $223 million.

Ford’s doctorate in management comes from an online, for-profit institute. He gained his master’s degree from a Christian university in the Deep South. His bachelor’s degree is from an upper-level state institution in Alabama.

All that may become irrelevant if Ford has the smarts and people skills to navigate the dangerous shoals of Baltimore’s City Hall and its Fire Department. He did it in Lincoln but not in Chamblee.

About the only thing that seems apparent is that Rawlings-Blake got what she wanted in picking an African American for the post.

But she is placing Ford in a difficult situation.

What Awaits Ford

Two of the rejected candidates are deputies in the Fire Department. That’s not going to make for calm seas.

The last fire chief, james Clack, ran into a storm of controversy when he sought to initiate reforms and was forced to impose budget cuts.

Clack didn’t understand the dynamics of this large East Coast fire department with long-standing racial and labor-union issues.

Even worse, the department is in the midst of painful downsizing and a king-sized pension fight with the mayor.

Clack hailed from Minneapolis, which doesn’t have much in common with Baltimore. The Upper Midwest ethos is quite different from Balmer’s, hon.

Fire Chief Ford at Lincoln, NE, blaze

Fire Chief Ford at Lincoln, NE, blaze

Charm City’s unique ethos is even more foreign for someone like Ford, who is coming from jobs in a Plains State community like Lincoln and then a Southern town like Chamblee, where three folks conversing on the street is a crowd.

Running a large fire and EMS department in an aging but dense Eastern urban city differs dramatically from the fire-fighting demands of a community in the middle of the nation’s sparsely populated  Farm Belt.

Mayor Favors Outsiders

Rawlings-Blake apparently is persuaded that outsiders do a better job running Baltimore than insiders. She consistently has ignored internal candidates in favor of national searches.

That doesn’t always turn out well.

Indeed, the best mayoral selection of recent vintage for a top post was a home-grown product — Fred Bealefeld, who understood how to pull the right strings to bring about reforms and a lower crime rate as police commissioner.

Clack left Baltimore with a mixed record. Ford already is under suspicion as a small-town official from outside the region with a modest record.

He has much to prove, which doesn’t say a lot for the mayor’s insistence on filling key posts with people who know little about the way things work in Baltimore.

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