THE FIRE MARSHALL usually comes to mind only at overcrowded parties or concerts, but the city's new top fire cop has ignited a firestorm of angry memos at City Hall over political patronage. One council member, Walt Dziedzic, says Mayor Sharon Sayles Belton "threatened to sue me" if he didn't retract claims that Fire Marshall Shari Bridell, who assumed the post last week, got the job in part because of political connections to Sayles Belton's 1993 mayoral campaign.
Sayles Belton's office denies any lawsuit threat, but did release an August memo that blasted Dziedzic. The mayor wrote, "You stated that I in some way influenced the promotion of a Fire Inspector II to an Assistant Fire Marshall position. (A post Bridell waited in before gaining the necessary credentials for the top job.) Your allegations are wholly and entirely untrue... I must say that I am quite disappointed in your behavior."
Dziedzic is one of City Hall's most famous loose cannons, but the mayor's office is not completely sure of Bridell's political relationships. Sayles Belton spokesperson Mary Pattock allows that Bridell's mother may have worked for the mayor's campaign; Bridell herself says neither she or her mother has.
Fueling the tongue-wagging, especially within the fire department, is Bridell's unlikely path to the job. Chief among the complaints is that, unlike many predecessors, she has virtually no experience fighting fires, and has only served on the force since 1991. "An unqualified Fire Marshall can cost city businesses millions of dollars in higher insurance rates," asserts Dziedzic.
Fire Chief Tom Dickinson, a Sayles Belton appointee who elevated Bridell, says Dziedzic and others don't understand the role of the Fire Marshall. "Being Fire Marshall isn't about putting out fires, it's about preventing them," Dickinson notes. "It's about knowing zoning codes and fire-prevention training, and Shari has more education than any other candidate in the department. The state Fire Marshall is a civilian, for heaven's sake."
Affirmative action, a familiar city employment issue, further complicates the debate. Sayles Belton has asserted that Bridell's appointment was a fait accompli based on a settlement in a class-action lawsuit brought four years ago by black city firefighters who were denied advancement. The mayor, in her rebuke to Dziedzic, claimed that "the city agreed to promote this individual" as part of an early-'90s legal settlement with minority firefighters, who complained that they were denied promotions.
Lest foes be imagined as a horde of angry white guys, one of Dziedzic's strongest allies is Mike Beaulieu, head of the city's Native American firefighters association, who tracked the lawsuit from the courts. "There was nothing in the settlement that required Bridell be appointed," Beaulieu says flatly. "The there were plenty of other, more experienced African Americans who should have been appointed to that job. It's just plain political."
Beaulieu claims that Bridell was fairly open about her connections, allegedly telling firefighters at a fire station meeting three years ago "political" factors helped her rise through the ranks. Bridell says she does not recall the conversation. Beaulieu thinks Dickinson is particularly influenced by City Hall politics; Sayles Belton considered not appointing him after taking office, and the Fire Chief is up for reappointment again next year.
Dickinson says critics are grasping at conspiracy theories. "First of all, it's not a question of who's been with the department the longest--it's my appointment, and I can pick whoever I work with best," he says. "Second, she is the best qualified, since she has far more education than anyone else in the department. Increasing opportunity is a goal of this department, but it's not the driving goal. Shari can do the job."