Parker starting mayoral tenure with police, fire chief searches
By BRADLEY OLSON Copyright 2009 Houston Chronicle
Fire Chief Phil Boriskie's departure, announced today, leaves Houston without a police or fire chief just three weeks in to the city's new administration, a fact not lost on Mayor Annise Parker.
Parker, who said she tried to persuade Boriskie to stay and accepted his resignation with “regret” in telephone conversations she had over the weekend while she attended a family funeral in Oklahoma, declined to provide a specific timeline for when his successor would be named, saying it was a decision that should not be rushed.
She has made similar comments about finding a replacement for former Police Chief Harold Hurtt, who resigned days before Parker took office. In that case, Parker had expressed a lack of confidence in his leadership on the campaign trail. Parker had declined to do as much in Boriskie's case, although she and her opponents frequently criticized the fire department's handling of an incident last July when two women firefighters found racist and sexist graffiti scrawled in their quarters.
Parker vowed that the department, which has been battered by the perception that a culture of sexism prevails among rank and file firefighters, would be “fixed.” The only specific change she named was the need to increase the number of women firefighters. Slightly more than 100 out of the city's 3,900 firefighters, or 2.6 percent, are women.
“The traditions and symbols of the fire service have to change with the times,” she said. “I don't believe we are a broken fire department. We are a great professional fire department that protects the citizens of Houston well. But internally, there are problems and like any family that has internal problems, sometimes we need to address those with outside help, and we need to work through that.”
She repeated three times during comments today that departmental problems “will be” fixed and added that the senior firefighters “will be a part of that decision, or there will be changes made.”
“We've had some dark clouds,” said Executive Assistant Chief Rick Flanagan, who will be acting chief once Boriskie steps aside Friday. Flanagan noted that although the department's position has always been not to tolerate discrimination and sexism, “it seems like somewhere we haven't really put our arms around that.”
He said the department had already made it a priority to more aggressively recruit women and promised to develop a management plan to address race and gender relations.
“What we're going to have to do is set the tone to address it,” he said.
In seeking a new chief, Parker said she would not limit her search to internal candidates, something she has done in seeking a new police chief. She said she will interview members of the command staff as she considers a new leader.
Already, pressure has begun to mount on the mayor not to go outside the department.
Flanagan said he was interested in the permanent job and noted that there “are a lot of great candidates” internally who could take the helm, although the department would “respect” Parker if she chose an outsider.
Jeffrey Caynon, president of the Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association, said at the press conference that firefighters would prefer to have a new chief named from among their ranks. While Boriskie struggled to combat negative perceptions that developed about the department and his leadership as the graffiti incident unfolded, he remained popular to the last among city firefighters.
“There are a lot of folks within the Houston Fire Department who are qualified to lead,” he said.