Saline Fire Chief Search Takes a Step Back, Board Plans to Interview 5 Candidates Now

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The Saline community's search for new fire chief took a strange turn Thursday evening.

It was thought when the Saline Area Fire Board met for a special meeting Thursday at city hall that the board would make a decision between finalists Jason Sperle and Brandon Sears - the two finalists interviewed last week by the fire board.

Instead, the fire board is now reinterviewing the final five finalists for the position: Brandon Sears, Lieutenant with the Saline Area Fire Department; Jason Sperle, Fire Marshal with the Pittsfield Township Fire Department; Dan Cain, retired Captain with Ypsilanti fire department; Andrew Stager, Captain with the Wayne Fire department; and Kevin Cornell, Lieutenant with the Saline Area Fire Department. These five candidates were previously interviewed with the board, which then put forth Sears and Sperle as the finalists.

How did this happen?

When Thursday's meeting began, Saline Mayor Brian Marl threw the board a curveball with his opening statement.

"After much thought and numerous conversations, I believe the fire board owes it to ourselves and, more importantly, our constituents to conduct one additional interview with our finalists. As I previously expressed to members of the hiring committee, I believe it would be wise and prudent to bring back a third candidate as well."

Marl suggested Dan Cain, a veteran firefighter who lives in the Saline community.

"The inclusion of Mr. Cain will allow us to vet another competent, qualified applicant while juxtaposing his credentials and vision with our two finalists," Marl said.

Marl said after consulting Frank Walsh, the consultant who helped screen candidates for the position, he believes the next round of questions should be about operations and day-to-day management of the department.

Marl told the board it should take its time and ensure it finds the right candidate.

"Is it inappropriate to take a little extra time to evaluate the experiences credentials leadership qualities of our next chief? The answer of course is an emphatic 'no,'" Marl said. "Our goal should be to find an outstanding excellent fire chief."

Marl's opinion was supported by Saline City Councillor Janet Dillon, York Township Supervisor Chuck Tellas and Lodi Township Supervisor Jan Godek.

Tellas said Cain serves on the Milan Area Fire Board. Tellas said last week's questions didn't focus enough on leadership.

"He is leading a public safety department. It is crucial he has leadership skills, including making life or death decisions in the battle against an unpredictable foe," Tellas said.

Lodi Township Supervisor Jan Godek said narrowing down to two finalists who live five miles from each other didn't appear transparent to the public.

"It doesn't look transparent to the community. It looks like the good old boys network and I'm uncomfortable with that," Godek said.

But other members of the board felt fine between choosing the two finalists.

"I'm very comfortable with the two we got right now," Lodi Trustee Bill Lindemann said.

Saline Township Trustee Robert Marion agreed.

"We paid a lot of money and (consultant Frank Walsh) is very qualified and we wound up with these two (finalists) and I think those are the two we need to vote on," Marion said.

York Township Trustee Sean Gleason agreed with them.

"We had two great candidates that came to the interviews," Gleason said. 

Gleason added that he's a friend of Cain's, and that Cain has made it known he'd only commit to five years on the job before retiring.

"Do we want to go to this process again in five years? So, I  think this is a bad decision. We have two great candidates."

Saline Township Supervisor Jim Marion said that if the board was going to take a step backward, it should allow all five finalists from the previous step to participate in the interviews.

Marl put forth his motion for another round of interviews with Sears, Sperle and Cain. Tellas seconded the motion.

Supervisor Marion once again reiterated that the board should open it up to all five candidates. He asked why they wouldn't. Marl said he was putting forth Cain and the two finalists because they scored highest with him. Trustee Gleason said that Marl's motion might reflect his own personal view of the candidates, but not the views of other candidates.

"Your top three is what you're basing your decision on, not the rest of our top three," Gleason said.

Marl agreed to amend this motion and accept Marion's suggestion that all five candidates be offered the chance to participate.

"I think that this board owes it to ourselves and our constituents to be thoughtful. So if that's what takes to move forward - to include all five - I'm willing to do that. I'm willing to accept that amendment to the motion," Marl said.

Tellas, however, didn't agree, as the seconder, to amend the motion.

The motion to interview Cain, Sears and Sperle failed, 7-2. Marl asked Supervisor Marion to offer his motion to bring back all five candidates. Marion obliged. Councillor Dillon seconded the motion. This motion passed, 7-2, with Gleason and Lindemann voting no.

Marl said people should not view reopening the position to more candidates as a "pejorative" against Sears or Sperle.

"They are dedicated public servants and strong arguments can be made in favor of each," Marl said.

The fire board will interview the five candidates for the job - at least those still interested - Tuesday at 2 p.m. during a special meeting. A second special meeting is scheduled for 6 p.m., Thursday. The board may reach a consensus at that meeting.

Councillor Janet Dillon suggested the board may need to close the meeting to the public to discuss their decision.

The fire board seeking a candidate to replace Craig Hoeft, who is retiring this year after a long run as Chief of the Saline Area Fire Department.

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