This may be the last time I opine on the Knoxville Fire Chief situation, but I know I've got this to say after Monday night.
I admire the council for standing behind their hire, Harold Stewart, and his decision that Greg Higginbotham should not be the full-time fire chief...at least to an extent. I like Stewart, he's been very open, honest, available and good to work with thus far. I think it's a good idea for the council to back his call most of the time.
However, the council is ultimately accountable to the public. They are elected to represent the people, not merely serve as the city manager's bosses. In this case, the public, at least those who care about the situation, have made it clear that they believe in Higginbotham.
This is my humble opinion, but I believe in this case there would have been more benefit to going with the public than the city manager. I think Higginbotham has earned the opportunity to hold the job on a more permanent basis and I just think teams function better when they are behind a leader they know, trust and believe in.
That being said, the leadership position Stewart is in is different than that of the fire chief. I disagree with the council members who said they hired Stewart to lead them. To me, the council, the elected representatives of the town, are supposed to set the agenda. The city manager should be given the destination and then take the lead to get the town there.
I think that is what happened in this case. The council wanted a more professional fire department and he is doing what he thinks is necessary to make that happen.
With that, I think the council sees this as one of Stewart's first big decisions. In my opinion, and I haven't confirmed this with any council member, I think they feel obligated to agree with his decision, if for nothing more than to demonstrate that they have his back.
What kind of confidence could the guy have in making future decisions if the council doesn't agree with him on this? Would it dispirit him? Make him second-guess each decision he makes in the future?
Anyone in the city manager's position needs to know he's got the support of his council.
Stewart has been on the job for over a year now and I think the council has offered plenty of opportunities to demonstrate their support and faith in him. They have not questioned any of his other personnel decisions, they backed his recommendations to create an assistant city manager position and they have put a great deal of faith in his ability to recruit business to Knoxville.
With all of these things, I think representing the public in the fire chief case would not have dispirited our city manager. Besides, he's not a child who needs to be coddled, especially in an instance where the responsive public has been so overwhelmingly supportive of leaving the fire department's leadership as is. The bottom line is, I think the council let their constituents down and have further added to that stereotype that Knoxville City Hall does not listen. This will ultimately be counterproductive to the council's efforts to improve its appearance and relationship with the people.
Take care of yourself and thank you for reading.