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Fire district chief recommendation creates a debate

The commission eventually approves the proposal, which the county administrator thought would be a good compromise.

By JEFFREY S. SOLOCHEK

© St. Petersburg Times, published June 14, 2000


BROOKSVILLE -- Between them, Danny Roberts and Mike Nickerson have spent 68 years fighting fires.

Each started young in volunteer departments and each rose to the rank of chief in their respective divisions. During their tenures with Hernando County, each won fierce support from the residents they serve, Roberts in the east and Nickerson in the northwest.

County Administrator Paul McIntosh never even considered anybody besides the two to lead the county's consolidated fire district, which forms Oct. 1.

But only one could be the boss. And McIntosh wanted Nickerson, whom he considered more visionary. Roberts, a star in daily operations, would fit in nicely overseeing the everyday work, McIntosh decided.

He figured no one could lose.

But when the commission debate ended Tuesday, Roberts was in tears and Nickerson was red-faced and defensive. However, both vowed to support each other in their new roles -- Nickerson as director of fire and rescue services, Roberts as chief of fire operations.

"I see us continuing in the positive manner we have," Nickerson said after the commission narrowly approved his appointment. "Throughout the (consolidation planning) process, we have met together to delegate responsibilities. (Roberts) not only has my total loyalty, he has earned it."

Roberts said he and Nickerson agreed going into the selection that they would back McIntosh's choice, regardless of the outcome.

"I hate to see the county at odds like this," he said of the commission's discussion about the nomination. "We've got a goal and we need to beat that goal. Peoples' lives depend on it."

At first, no one would support Commissioner Chris Kingsley's motion to accept McIntosh's recommendation, which he said would highlight the men's positive attributes and diminish their limitations.

Rather, Commissioner Pat Novy launched into a diatribe that alternately criticized McIntosh's selection process and Nickerson's leadership abilities. She accused Nickerson of being unreliable and quoted from performance reviews that showed Roberts with higher marks. Novy suggested McIntosh should change his recommendation.

McIntosh refused, and told the commission that if it did not accept his nomination, he would go back to the drawing board and restart the search. Novy responded by moving to appoint Roberts as chief.

"You have no ability at this point to modify his recommendation and approve it today," County Attorney Garth Coller said. "Your motion must either adopt or deny his recommendation."

Chairman Paul Sullivan then asked for a new motion. Before one came, Deputy Administrator Dick Radacky rose to defend Nickerson. Commissioners debated for another 5 minutes before Roberts approached the dais.

He urged the commission to put aside personalities and to start thinking about Hernando County. The consolidation plans have lagged as both he and Nickerson fretted about the appointment and related politics, Roberts said. Bringing in outsiders will benefit no one, he said, voice wavering.

Novy renewed her request that McIntosh change his recommendation, and McIntosh again refused. Then Nickerson came forth.

"I swore to myself that I would not under any circumstances come up here to defend myself," he said.

But Novy's attack required explanations, he said. If the commission has no confidence in him, Nickerson said, he would resign.

"I've worked hard, and I refuse to have that work tarnished," he said.

As Nickerson sat down, Kingsley chided his colleagues for turning McIntosh's "win-win" situation into a "lose-lose" where bad feelings reigned. He made another motion to adopt the recommendation.

This time, Commissioner Nancy Robinson seconded the motion and said she did so because Roberts told the commission to put Hernando County first.

Sitting in the audience, Roberts trembled and wept. Nickerson put his arm around Roberts' shoulder to comfort him.

Commissioner Bobbi Mills said Roberts proved with his comments who the "real leader" was. But she then voted to back McIntosh's selection of Nickerson as director.

McIntosh said he did not consider the commission's battle about the chief to be a sign of bad things to come. Not every recommendation will win full, hearty support, he said.

"My job is to provide them with the most professional recommendations I can make, no matter which way the political winds are blowing," McIntosh said.

Nickerson and Roberts, too, said they expected to get past the debate and on with the matters of substance.

"I regret that the commission was split," Nickerson said. "I will work hard to mend fences."

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