Butte-Silver Bow’s assistant fire chief and four battalion chiefs are backing claims that county Chief Executive Dave Palmer skirted normal hiring practices in recently offering a firefighting job to a Butte man.
Assistant Fire Chief Brian Doherty and the battalion chiefs, in a letter to Fire Chief Jeff Miller, don’t openly suggest, as members of the Fire Commission did, that Palmer offered the job to Levi Davenport because he is the son-in-law of County Attorney Eileen Joyce.
But they said Palmer didn’t follow the Fire Commission’s recommendations and skirted hiring practices as outlined in a local ordinance.
The letter asks Miller to consult with Palmer and “determine why the hiring procedures as outlined in the Code of Municipal Ordinances" were not followed. It indicates that copies were sent to Palmer and Butte-Silver Bow commissioners.
Palmer said again Friday that he hired the top three recommendations for vacant firefighter positions last fall and had legitimate reasons for recently passing over others before choosing two county residents, including Davenport.
When told of Palmer's continued defense of how he made his decision, Doherty issued a statement to the Standard.
"The Butte Fire Department's administrative staff stands by the content of our submitted letter and our interpretation of the ordinance as it pertains to the selection of probationary firefighter candidates," Doherty's statement said.
The statement continued, "Like many fire departments, we view our community standing as a vital element in the overall success of our organization; we feel that by not making a statement we would be isolating ourselves from the community that we are honored to serve."
Miller said he got the letter, understood that the situation was unchanged from Thursday when the dispute was made public, and was not at liberty to say anything further. As chief executive, Palmer is Miller’s boss and oversees hundreds of other county employees.
Palmer said he had seen the letter but had yet to discuss it with Joyce, the county attorney. But he said for now, he didn’t see his stance on the situation changing.
Davenport and another county resident have not officially been hired yet and at some point, the Council of Commissioners must confirm them. But they have been offered the jobs.
The Fire Commission screens applicants applying for paid positions with the Butte-Silver Bow Fire Department. It chooses a number of applicants, interviews them, ranks them, and gives the list to the chief executive for possible appointment.
All five members of that panel signed a letter to Palmer in March raising concerns about his offering a job to Davenport, who they noted was Joyce’s son-in-law. The letter was sent to all commissioners on Thursday, and The Montana Standard got a copy.
“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?” that letter said.
It 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.”
In a Thursday letter to Miller, Doherty and the battalion chiefs said the Fire Commission takes its screening role very seriously so the department gets “the most qualified applicant for an opening.”
It cites a provision in the municipal code that says, “When requested to do so, the examining board shall certify to the chief executive the names of the three top candidates on the order of appointment list for the particular position to be filled.”
The code then says the chief executive “may make a conditional appointment of any one of such persons to the paid fire department.”
“It is clear that these procedures were not followed, as the top three candidates on the order of appointment were not contacted,” Doherty and the battalion chiefs say in their letter.
“Their hard work is immensely appreciated by those of us in management positions … and it is very disheartening that the Fire Commission’s ranking list was not followed,” the letter says.
But Palmer says he got a list of numerous applicants the Fire Commission had interviewed and did choose the top three candidates, giving them all positions last fall.
When two more firefighters retired this year, opening up two more positions, Palmer said he used the same list and had legitimate reasons for skipping over several who were ranked next.
He said he passed over one 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.
He passed over another because he already had taken a firefighting position in Anaconda, he said. And he said he passed over two others because they were not from Butte.
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,” Derek Harvey, the union president, recently told the Standard. “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 that occurred two years ago, when the county hired a man from Helena who quit within a year and went back that city when a job there opened. All that time spent training him was wasted, Palmer said.
Besides, Palmer said, Davenport 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 and was qualified for the job. She says she did vouch for Davenport’s “strong work ethic and character.”
Davenport 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,” he 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.”
At least one commissioner says the council needs to look into the matter.