Members of a panel that screens applicants for paid positions with the Butte-Silver Bow Fire Department are questioning whether county Chief Executive Dave Palmer chose an applicant because he is the son-in-law of County Attorney Eileen Joyce.
All five members of the Butte-Silver Bow Fire Commission signed a letter to Palmer in March raising that and other concerns, and one member hand delivered it to the secretary of the Council of Commissioners on Thursday and asked that all commissioners get it.
“It would appear from this information that there was some type of political collusion in his appointment, and the fact that eight (8) more qualified applicants were skipped over to appoint Davenport would suggest ‘other than obvious powers’ were at work here?” the letter said.
Palmer says Levi Davenport was qualified and that he did not offer him the position because of any relation to Joyce. He did say Davenport was from Butte and that, for good reason, he passed over a couple of applicants ranked higher by the Fire Commission because they weren’t from here.
Davenport has not officially been hired yet, but he was offered the job and accepted. He said Thursday that it was unfortunate how events have played out.
“When I was offered the job, I was really honored and pretty excited about it,” Davenport said. “If I do get the opportunity to be hired on, I will continue to work hard and be the best I can. I have put a lot of hard work into this, and all I can do is my best.”
The Fire Commission chooses a number of applicants for open firefighter positions, interviews them, ranks them, and gives the list to the chief executive for possible appointment.
In their letter, members of the Fire Commission said Palmer had skipped candidates on their list of recommendations and went “as low as number 13 for appointments” to the probationary firefighter position in question.
They suggested their “tedious work” was “circumvented” and said “the appearance of outside influences in the appointment process are very apparent.”
Besides skipping over two applicants because they weren’t from Butte, Palmer said he passed over someone else ranked higher because he had a personnel issue in his past that he felt disqualified him. He said he could not disclose that issue because it was a personnel matter.
Palmer said he also passed over someone because he had already taken a firefighting position in Anaconda, and he recently offered another position with the Butte department to someone else from the county.
And, he said, he previously recommended the top three people on the list for positions last fall, and all were hired.
An official with the union that represents Butte’s paid firefighters said being from Butte should not be a criterion and it’s a reason the union is part of a pre-screening committee that goes over all applications first before forwarding them to the Fire Commission.
“That’s a big part of the reason we got involved, to make sure that wasn’t happening,” said Derek Harvey, president of the International Association of Firefighters Local 96 and also a state representative from Butte. “We want the most qualified people to serve our community and to have our back.”
But Palmer said he didn’t want to repeat a scenario from two years ago.
“This is the problem you get,” Palmer said. “You want to try to use the list the best you can, but we hired a person from Helena, and he wasn’t even here a year, and a position opened up in Helena and he went up and applied and got it.
“Our efforts and time and resources we put into that person were wasted, pretty much,” he said.
He said Davenport, like all applicants, had completed the Montana Firefighter Testing Consortium and was a volunteer firefighter with the Racetrack Volunteer Fire Department in Butte. And he considered everyone on the Fire Commission’s list qualified, he said.
Joyce said Davenport had passed tests from the Fire Consortium, a prerequisite for being a firefighter, and was qualified for the job.
“The decision is Dave’s to make, and I did vouch for Levi’s strong work ethic and character,” she said. “I believe he will make a good firefighter. He was qualified for the appointment.”
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Fire Chief Jeff Miller said he was not at liberty to comment and referred any questions to Palmer.
The Standard has left repeated messages on the work voicemail of Steve McArthur, chairman of the Fire Commission, and member John Amptmann had a voicemail that was full.
The other three members declined to talk on the record. They are Archie Arntson, Jim Kennedy, and Edie McClafferty, who is also a state senator from Butte.
The Standard contacted them earlier about an anonymous letter raising similar concerns that had been sent to Palmer and the Standard, among others. Fire Commission members who were reached said they were aware of that letter but still declined to comment.
But they all signed a March 5 letter addressed to Palmer they said was submitted to him in late March. The council secretary, in an email to commissioners, said Kennedy gave it to her on Thursday with instructions that all 12 council members see it.
Kennedy confirmed that to the Standard on Thursday but said he could not comment beyond statements in the letter.
One of the last statements in the letter says that "the facts as presented above should be brought to an open meeting of the BSB Council of Commissioners for their review.”
According to hiring procedures spelled out in the municipal code and by the Butte-Silver Bow Human Resources Department, anyone considered for the Fire Department must have successfully completed the annual Firefighter Consortium.
When a vacancy exists, the job or jobs are posted, and applicants apply online. The applications and resumes are then sent to an internal screening committee that includes the union president, a battalion chief, a captain, and a firefighter.
Five positions have opened up in the last year, and three people were hired in September. Two more, including one offered to Davenport and one offered to a volunteer firefighter from Walkerville, opened more recently because two more firefighters retired.
Commissioners have to confirm the appointments at some point, but they can’t be officially hired until some unused vacation and other paid time is off the books, officials said.
Harvey said the pre-screening committee went through about 25 applications and scored them on such things as education, certified training, and experience before giving the list to the Fire Commission.
He said he couldn’t recall where they ranked Davenport but said “it was toward the bottom.”
According to Leslie Clark, the county’s Human Resources director, the Fire Commission interviewed at least 14 people and gave a recommended list to Palmer.
Palmer said he hired three from the list last fall and had legitimate reasons for passing over some candidates from the same list when new positions recently opened. But he said he considered everyone on the list qualified or they wouldn’t have gotten that far.
“They send me the list, and I choose from that list,” he said. “There is nothing that says I have to go in any particular order.”
John Morgan, chairman of the Council of Commissioners, said he had seen the letter from the Fire Commission on Thursday. He said from his perspective, hiring is the job of the Human Resources Department and chief executive.
“They follow the policies and procedures as set out in the ordinances, and once they reach our docket, I am assuming they are qualified candidates,” Morgan said. “Do we need to investigate it (the current situation)? I guess to a point, but I don’t think the Council of Commissioners should be involved in the hiring of Butte-Silver Bow employees.”
Commissioner Jim Fisher said, now that the letter has been sent to council members, they need to look into the matter.