Finalist chosen in search for fire chief

The City of Livingston on Wednesday announced a finalist for the fire chief vacancy.

City Manager Ed Meece said the hiring committee selected Ben Coffman, a lieutenant with the Fairfax County Fire Department in Virginia, from a talented pool of more than 50 applicants.

The Livingston City Commission will interview Coffman via Skype in a closed session before next week’s commission meeting.

Meece said the commission can vote to approve or deny the candidate but could also decide to fly Coffman in for an in-person interview.

In an email to Meece as well several city employees and the rest of the commission, City Commissioner Adam Stern said he was upset the city administration posted a notice on the city’s website advertising the commission will take action after an online interview on Tuesday.

“The manager alerted us to an online interview only on November 20th, and now is advertising that we will take action on this item. He seems to assume that we will approve this process,” Stern wrote.

According to Meece, a video-streamed meeting saves the city time and money. A recent estimate on airfare runs over $1,300 to attend the Dec. 2 meeting or about $700 for Dec. 16. But he said the commission has the prerogative to decide to bring a candidate to Livingston for an interview.

“There’s this issue of saving money but theoretically you’re hiring one of the most important leadership positions in your community. So while you want to be as cost effective as you can, you also don’t want to short-circuit the process in any way to save money,” Meece said. 

He said the video interview is as much about timing as cost savings and if the commission wants to see the candidate in person, the administration will arrange that.

Stern said in his email that the commission should have been notified in an open meeting the planned final interview would be streamed online.

“This situation is very similar to the city manager abandoning the performance budget without alerting the Commission. If the manager wished to choose this approach, he should produce a performance budget this year, and discuss the topic with the Commission at the next budget meeting,” Stern wrote. “It certaily (sic) seems the manager is trying to make the Commission’s decisions for them”.

Stern said the commission should discuss both the performance budget and the fire chief hiring process at its meeting next week. He won’t approve a fire chief without a face-to-face interview and an opportunity for the community to meet the finalist.

Lisa Lowy, human resources director, said Coffman’s experience includes functioning as a Rescue Operations Specialist for the Department of Homeland Security.

According to Meece, Fairfax County is a large, urban county in Virginia and its close proximity to Washington D.C. made Coffman’s training necessary because of the elevated threat of terrorism. The skills and experience he collected there apply to Livingston’s frequent trains carrying hazardous materials.

“He has a very solid diverse background amongst all the different areas that are of interest to the City of Livingston,” Meece said.

He said that includes experience in wildfire, structure fire, emergency medical service, incident planning, and professional leadership.

Lowy said Coffman holds ties to Montana, having fought wildfires in the state and for a time lived in Ekalaka, a small town in Southeast of the state.  

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Jordon Niedermeier may be reached at jordon@livent.net.