County Fire Chief O'Neill to retire

Upper ranks were trimmed, early retirement plan initiated during his term

May 02, 2000|By Dan Thanh Dang | Dan Thanh Dang,SUN STAFF

Baltimore County Fire Chief John F. O'Neill, who streamlined the upper ranks of the 1,000-member department during nearly three years in the job, announced his retirement yesterday.

"Our Fire Department will function effectively for years to come because of reforms made while John O'Neill was chief," County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger said in a prepared statement. "We appreciate Chief O'Neill's 28 years of service to the citizens of Baltimore County."

Deputy Fire Chief John Hohman will serve as acting chief until a permanent replacement can be found. O'Neill's retirement takes effect June 1.

Ruppersberger and O'Neill worked to reduce the top ranks of the department, which critics said had become bloated. They proposed, and the County Council approved, an early retirement plan that allowed the department to reduce the number of battalion chiefs from 30 to 15 and the number of deputy chiefs from five to two.

The retirement package freed up about $825,000. The money will be spent on additional emergency medical services.

O'Neill, 53, is the fourth chief to work under Ruppersberger, who took office six years ago. Under O'Neill's leadership, the department's focus shifted to emergency services, which account for most calls.

Michael Day, an official in the firefighters union, praised O'Neill but expressed concern about stability in the department.

"We've enjoyed working with Chief O'Neill and look forward to a cooperative environment with Chief Hohman," he said.

However, the turnover among chiefs "is definitely not good on morale," he said. "You need consistency in a department."

O'Neill came under fire from the union in September when he promoted Hohman and Mark E. Weir Sr., both of whom had ties to Ruppersberger, from battalion chiefs to deputy chiefs. Union leaders complained that qualified candidates were unfairly shut out of consideration.

O'Neill defended the choices, saying they were not political.

When the number of deputy chiefs was cut this year, Weir and Hohman remained in the job.

"Reorganization of upper management was something that's been talked about for over the last 10 years," said O'Neill, who said he plans to move to Fort Myers, Fla. "We didn't want to force anybody out who didn't want to go. But I knew that no matter what plan we came up with, somebody would be unhappy."

O'Neill joined the department when he was 25 and quickly moved up the ranks. He replaced Chief Paul Reincke in October 1997, taking over a troubled department that was being investigated by the U.S. Justice Department for alleged racial discrimination.

The investigation was prompted by an incident in 1996 in which a noose was found in a black firefighter's gear at the Towson station.

"It made things more challenging," O'Neill said. "But I knew the department extremely well, and I was aware of what our problems were and what our weaknesses were. It was nothing that I or the department wasn't up to."

O'Neill also denied rumors yesterday that we was being forced out.

"I built a home in Florida and I've been been planning to retire for awhile," O'Neill said.

O'Neill becomes the fourth high-ranking county official to announce his exit in recent months. P. David Fields left as director of the Office of Community Conservation, but has not discussed his plans. Charles R. Olsen, the county public works chief, is taking an engineering job in the private sector. Ruppersberger's top aide, Michael H. Davis, is leaving to work on the re-election campaign of Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes.

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