By Barbara Behrendt
The Tampa Bay Times
BROOKSVILLE, Fla. — As they decide who will lead the new, consolidated Hernando County fire service, county commissioners are finding that the devil is in the details - the details of the job description.
Commissioners on Tuesday talked about what was more important: experience or education. And they debated whether to leave in the description a preference for someone with experience supervising animal services.
Ultimately, at the conclusion of the discussion of what they want in their director of integrated fire-rescue and public safety services, the commission split down the middle with Commissioner Dave Russell straddling the fence.
Tuesday's meeting was a workshop, so the commission couldn't vote. That means the debate will continue at next Tuesday's commission meeting as the county works through the merger of the Hernando County and the Spring Hill fire and rescue units, a task that must be completed by Sept. 30 of next year.
County Administrator Len Sossamon and two commissioners each submitted proposed job descriptions with different features. The primary detail causing the rift was that the applicant should have a bachelor's degree in fire science, fire administration, public administration or a related field.
Adding that requirement would take current public safety director Mike Nickerson and acting fire Chief Mike Rampino — formerly the Spring Hill Fire Rescue chief — out of the running, despite the more than 50 years of local experience they have collectively.
"If it's not broke, don't fix it," said Robert Rae, representing the Hernando County firefighters union.
Rae told commissioners of Nickerson's history of successfully working through county fire mergers in the past.
He said a job description requiring a degree shuts the existing chiefs from the applicant pool, and "that's unfair. They've put a lot of time in with Hernando County."
Commissioner Diane Rowden said it looked like some officials were trying to keep Nickerson and Rampino out of the running for the job.
Rowden also said she was confused about why commissioners were writing the job descriptions, a role that belonged to the administrator. She wanted Sossamon to bring his description back to the board for a vote.
"It looks like we're trying to eliminate two people who have dedicated their life and their years of service to Hernando County," she said.
Rowden said she would not support advertising the job outside the county at this point. "I just believe that we have the right people for this job," she said.
Commissioner Jim Adkins, himself a retired Brooksville fire chief, said that common sense and institutional knowledge can be more practical than a college degree in some fields.
He also said he wanted to keep animal services in the job description for now, even though at some point he would like to see the service in a different department.
Commissioner Nick Nicholson was opposed to that idea, saying that putting a preference for animal services experience into the description is not where the commission is ultimately going with its organization. It might also give Nickerson a leg up on the job since he is currently supervising Animal Services, he said.
Dukes pointed out to Nickerson that no other commissioner was willing to strip Animal Services out of the description.
On the issue of education, however, they both agreed they wanted the degree to be part of the requirements, though Dukes said there could be a way to ask a potential internal candidate who had no degree to start working toward one.
Commissioner Dave Russell said that he thought the plan Adkins and Rowden were talking about made sense, and he noted that another county director doesn't meet the degree requirement in his description — business development director Michael McHugh.
McHugh, however, is working toward his bachelor's degree.
At the end of the workshop, Russell said he still wanted more time to think about the job description before a formal vote next week.
Nickerson also brought commissioners up to speed with other details of the merger.
In January, the commission will be asked to set the boundaries of the service area for purposes of an assessment.
Commissioners agreed not to include the territory now served by the volunteer fire departments in High Point and Hernando Beach.
Funding for the new district will be discussed by late spring.
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