For the past four years, the St. Thomas Fire Department has faced the equivalent of an internal multi-alarm blaze.
And, it is to be hoped with the announcement this week of Kyle Smith’s promotion to deputy fire chief that the final embers of controversy have been suppressed.
You have to delve back to August of 2017 and the death of popular fire chief Rob Broadbent to discover the source of the flames of discontent.
The decision was made somewhere in the corridors of city hall to look elsewhere for a replacement for the outgoing, community-minded Broadbent.
This is despite a strong candidate in Deputy Fire Chief Ray Ormerod who, according to some sources, was not even granted an interview.
We’ll wend our way back to Ormerod shortly.
So the search for a new chief ended in Chatham-Kent where the deputy chief in that municipality, Bob Davidson was deemed the ideal replacement.
Davidson arrived in St. Thomas in January of 2018 only to abruptly tender his resignation in July 2021.
Back to Ormerod. Deemed not suitable as chief material previously, now Central Elgin Fire Chief Ray Ormerod was called in to fill the void until Davidson’s replacement could be found.
Again, that individual was not from within the ranks but instead appeared in St. Thomas late in 2021 in the form of Kevin Welsh, formerly the fire chief in Renfrew.
The Oct. 28 media release was a tad skimpy on details other than Welsh had 27 years of experience and would officially assume the role on Nov. 15.
Six months later and Welsh was abruptly written out of the script, not unlike the mid-season cancellation of a poorly received television series.
After all this, the powers-to-be at city hall determined it was probably best to look internally and Deputy Chief Dave Gregory was promoted to chief on an interim basis.
That was made permanent in September of this year.
Stability seems to be the order of the day down at the fire hall, no doubt reinforced this week with the announcement of Kyle Smith’s appointment to deputy chief.
We took time to visit the main fire station this week for a sit down with Smith and his thoughts on what lies ahead not only for him but for the service that has endured turbulent times of late.
He’s a 28-year veteran who, most recently, was a platoon chief.
And he told us he is going to miss working with that platoon now that he will be on desk duty for the most part.
“I miss the guys,” he confirmed. “Not to brag, but we have four platoons and everybody thinks their platoon is the best.
“I had an excellent crew to work with who made my life a lot easier than it should have been.”
It’s all about the people, he stressed.
“If you have the best equipment money can buy, and you don’t have the right people to run it, you have nothing.”
It wasn’t difficult to sense Smith is anxious to tackle the added responsibilities as deputy fire chief.
“I will be helping, hopefully, the chief with some prognosis about where we’re going and where we want to be.
“And, maybe also, something that is deficient or lacking in the department so I’ll be mainly doing equipment, real estate, personnel and will be stepping in periodically for the chief.”
Real estate perhaps is a reference to the city’s third fire hall to be located in the Indwell housing project on Queen Street.
Occupancy is several years distant but is that the best location and how intimately was the fire service involved in choosing that location?
“If you tend to work with people, instead of having people work for you, you get a lot more accomplished. It’s a team effort. I’ve seen the other side of the coin where it’s been a do-as-I-say attitude and I don’t go by that.”
Smith joined the service in 1994 and has been recognized for his personal and professional growth.
“Progress. I want us to either, through expansion and serving the city and the citizens just so that we have the coverage we need.
“It could be through equipment, it could be through training. It could be through real estate like you said building a new hall.
“The people pay their taxes, they expect some kind of service for their money and I hope we can deliver up to their expectations and everybody is happy.”
A priority, adds Smith, is to look at automatic aid scenarios with neighbouring municipalities.
“So what that entails is volunteer or neighbouring departments. We currently have one with Lynhurst.
“If they have a fire in the area, we automatically go. They don’t call us.
“We’re looking toward the Southwold area where there will probably be another set up for automatic aid.”
When you get right down to it, it’s all about working with people, advised Smith.
“If you tend to work with people, instead of having people work for you, you get a lot more accomplished. It’s a team effort.
“I’ve seen the other side of the coin where it’s been a do-as-I-say attitude and I don’t go by that.
“You can still get things accomplished and get along. We’re all striving for the same goal at the end of the day.”
Have to admit the mood around the fire hall was much more upbeat than it has been for some time.
No doubt due to stability at the helm
But perhaps the departure of several members of the city’s management team over the past couple of years has played a role.
As has the addition of a new city manager.
There is no doubt a couple of hiring decisions in the past have to be put under the scope to determine their long-term impact.
But the real litmus test will come at budget time with close consideration paid to that overtime line item.
END OF TERM
The four-year term of city council drew to a close this past Monday (Nov. 14) and with it, time to bid farewell to a pair of councillors who did not seek re-election.
Mark Burgess – who was absent from the meeting – was appointed to fill the seat vacated on the death of Coun. Mark Tinlin in June of 2021.
Joan Rymal was first elected to council in 2014 and garnered instant attention when she, along with Tinlin and Linda Stevenson put forth a motion to drop the term alderman – then in use – in favour of councillor.
In bidding farewell on Monday, Rymal said she wanted to thank fellow council members for their help.
“It’s been my honour and privilege to serve the City of St. Thomas on council. I wish the new council all the best and good luck in all your endeavours.
“You have an awesome group of councillors to help you plus an awesome staff to help as well.”
Mayor Joe Preston offered his thanks for her two terms of service to the city.
“It has been an incredible honour to serve with you. You are prepared every night for what we have to do here and sometimes it’s fun and sometimes it’s not, but you were always prepared to do it.
“Yes, we got a lot of things done through COVID and through the passing of two of our members (Tinlin and Stevenson) and an awful lot of growth in this community.”
Perhaps the most moving tribute was offered by Coun. Steve Peters.
“There is one thing that has really struck me about you working with you for the past four years is that you remind me so much of former mayor Janet Golding.”
An interesting flashback on Peters’ part as it was Golding who played an indirect role in his winning the mayor’s seat more than 30 years ago.
Peters was first elected to council in 1988 and in the following municipal election Golding and former Mayor Cliff Barwick were locked in a heated mayoral campaign and who should come up the middle? None other than the third candidate, Steve Peters.
In any event, Peters continued on the comparison with Golding by stressing, “I say that in a very positive way because her Worship had that uncanny ability to pull out a piece of paper from 10 years ago and remind us collectively of what we had talked about on a previous occasion.
“You always came so prepared for a meeting I really appreciate that.”
High praise indeed.
IN WITH THE NEW
The inaugural meeting of the incoming council is Monday (Nov. 21) beginning at 7 p.m.
All members will be sworn in, including newcomers Rose Gibson and Tara McCaulley.
It’s the time when city clerk Maria Konefal declares the result of Oct. 24, confirming the election was not stolen as many south of the border still believe two years after the presidential vote.
An interesting point in the ceremony is the charge to the council, this time undertaken by Pastor Jeremy Best of Faith Church.
That will be followed by Mayor Joe Preston’s inaugural address.
The first regular meeting of council will be held on Dec. 5.
HOPING THE METER IS NEVER TURNED ON
The wraps were put on Monday’s council meeting in under 20 minutes, but that was time enough for one of the best quotes of the year in the chamber at city hall.
Coun. Gary Clarke observed, “I was just hoping that at the hourly rate, that these lawyers work quickly.”
He was referring to a report in front of council regarding Mark McDonald – the former CAO of the County of Elgin -who announced he is retiring and no longer will offer his services as Closed Session Investigator and Integrity Commissioner.
The agreement with McDonald included an annual retainer of $2,500 per year plus an hourly rate of $125
per hour plus disbursements.
Instead, the city will piggyback in with Elgin county on a two-year agreement with the law firm of Aird Berlis LLP for the provision of Integrity Commissioner services.
Those services come at a rate of $489.75 per hour and which is the basis for Coun. Clarke’s comment.
The city will rely on the services of the provincial Ombudsman for closed meeting complaints and investigations.
According to city clerk Maria Konefal’s report to council on the matter, the last investigation conducted by McDonald was in 2019.
June of 2019 to be exact when city council dealt with McDonald’s report dealing a signed complaint from a city employee alleging a member of council of the opposite sex removed a cell phone from a hip pocket, brushed their body against the complainant’s back and casually touched a forearm and elbow multiple times, making the employee feel very uncomfortable.
In his written report, McDonald noted “there were conflicting versions of what took place, although the councillor admitted to removing the cell phone from a hip pocket.”
McDonald concluded, “There is no doubt that this encounter has caused emotional stress and violates council’s Code of Conduct.”
A formal apology was offered, which was declined by the complainant.
McDonald opted not to name the member of council, because “it could very well lead to the identity of the complainant which, in turn, would discourage others from coming forward with complaints.”
The punishment meted out?
All members of council were to undertake sensitivity training.
Has there ever been confirmation all members complied?
McDonald’s rationale for his course of action is an interesting read and the link is below.
Indeed a low point in the term of this council that was quickly brushed aside.
Is sensitivity training sufficient deterrent to deal with workplace harassment at city hall?
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And a reminder, I can be heard weekday afternoons as news anchor and reporter on 94.1 myFM in St. Thomas. As always, your comments and input are appreciated.