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Wide search wanted for Hernando fire chief

Published Sep. 29, 2005

(ran PC edition)

Two commissioners say local candidates should be considered if two fire districts merge.

If the County Commission votes this month to merge the Northwest and East fire districts to improve efficiency, a big question will need answering: Who will be chief?

The matter is delicate because the districts' respective chiefs, Mike Nickerson and Danny Roberts, have devoted years of service to the county and enjoy widespread respect.

And both want the top job.

One comforting notion for them has been that whoever lost out would probably become assistant chief. In other words, neither man would lose his job.

Now County Administrator Bonnie Dyga has altered the dynamic. She said Wednesday she plans to advertise the job in Fire Chief magazine and would expect to attract applicants from throughout Florida.

Her decision disappointed Nickerson, and Commissioners Pat Novy and Paul Sullivan questioned the need to look outside the county. Roberts said an external search would not bother him because he is confident of his qualifications.

Dyga had no unkind words for either Nickerson or Roberts and hopes both apply. But she said that because they come from different departments, "They have their opponents and proponents."

Without a full-fledged search, Dyga worries there might be resentment among some firefighters, no matter who is chosen as chief.

"I don't want to put either one of those men in a position of getting a job without everyone recognizing they went through a competitive process," she said.

She added that she wants to avoid any claims that the hiring involved favoritism or "because somebody wanted him to have it."

But Novy said the resentment level will be higher if the new chief comes from outside the county.

"They don't know beans (about) what's been going on in the county if you do that," she said, declining to say whether she preferred one of the in-house candidates.

Besides, she added, "You've got people who have put in their time, people who have worked very hard to build what we have today."

Sullivan said his initial reaction is that given the chiefs' experience levels, "I don't have a problem promoting from within."

He said he expects the issue to come up at a commission meeting. Dyga said she informed every commissioner of her intentions, and "Nobody said don't do that."

Nickerson pointed out that an internal search would be nothing new. Utilities Director Kay Adams, Deputy County Administrator Dick Radacky and three assistant county administrators were all promoted without a look outside the county.

While he shares Dyga's desire for a fair and equitable process, Nickerson said, "I just personally feel I have a very good track record, and so does Chief Roberts."

Nickerson, 38, is a charter member of the Northwest District, formed in 1985. He rose through the ranks to become chief in 1990. He earns $59,134.

Roberts, 49, is a charter member of his district, too. He became chief of the East District in 1991, after serving as chief of the Tri-Community Volunteer Fire Department. He makes $55,328.

The two men have worked closely for nearly a decade. Lately, commissioners have relied upon the two to help plan the proposed consolidation.

The chiefs are not without their critics, though.

Roberts knows he is considered a taskmaster who works subordinates hard.

"I don't think I overwork anyone," he said. "I work hard, and I expect the people with me to work hard, too. I've relayed that to everyone. I'm not ashamed of that."

Nickerson discounts his onetime reputation as an absentee boss dubbed Casper by some employees. He attributed that label to his hands-off management style.

"If things are running right, I don't do a lot of looking over shoulders," he said. "As far as being on the job, I've always been there."

The search for a new chief will be moot if the commission votes against consolidation. A final public hearing is scheduled for 10 a.m. Aug. 17 at the Hernando County Fairgrounds.

Supporters say the merger would improve efficiency and be a step toward countywide fire service. Opponents complain about the higher rates that would accompany the change.