Leopold picks new fire chief

Anne Arundel executive-elect names Stokes to succeed Blackwell

November 23, 2006|By Phillip McGowan | Phillip McGowan,SUN REPORTER

Anne Arundel County Executive-elect John R. Leopold announced yesterday that he is replacing Fire Chief Ronald D. Blackwell with David L. Stokes Jr., a 27-year department veteran who was promoted to deputy chief last summer.

Blackwell, picked by Democratic County Executive Janet S. Owens in 2004 to be the county's first black fire chief, said Leopold told him in a brief phone conversation Monday that he was being replaced. Blackwell described it as a "one-way discussion."

Blackwell is credited with expanding paramedic service and hiring more women and minorities, but he has drawn criticism for failing to rein in the department's overtime spending and being unable to keep his ranks filled.

Leopold, a Republican who has been described by members of his own party as a loner in the House of Delegates, is apparently keeping his own counsel on key appointments and has left several department heads in the dark about their futures.

In the news release announcing Stokes' promotion, Leopold did not refer to Blackwell.

Reached by phone yesterday, Leopold said of replacing Blackwell: "In putting together a new government, I am trying to weigh the experience as well as other factors, including respect among the career firefighters as well as the volunteers."

Leopold also noted that Stokes, 49, "has a wealth of experience."

"He's viewed as a calming influence who is familiar with a bunch of disciplines, including budgeting," Leopold said. "I am looking for a keen administrator to address the overtime problems as we search for efficiencies in that department and others."

Stokes could not be reached for comment yesterday.

Last week, Leopold revealed his first wave of 19 key appointments. He named Dennis Callahan, a Democrat and former Annapolis mayor and county parks director, as his chief of staff; promoted Deputy Police Chief James Teare Sr. to replace the retiring chief of police; and retained some Owens appointees while accepting the resignations of others, such as civil rights activist Carl O. Snowden.

About 45 government jobs are filled by the county executive.

Stokes, who steps into the job Dec. 4, will oversee more than 1,300 uniformed and volunteer firefighters. A Lothian resident, Stokes currently runs the logistics bureau, overseeing the 911 fire center, other communications systems and vehicle maintenance. He served for six years as a volunteer with the Eastport and West Annapolis volunteer departments.

Blackwell, 54, wished Leopold's administration well and said Stokes is a "terrific choice." Blackwell said he learned of Stokes' appointment yesterday morning and had lunch with him.

"He's a veteran firefighter with the diverse background and experience who possesses an enormous institutional knowledge that will be a help in his new role," Blackwell said.

Snowden, who is black, said the executive-elect's decision not to retain Blackwell "sort of flies in the face" of a pledge by Leopold to promote diversity in his administration. Stokes is white.

Leopold had said his administration would reflect the "racial and geographic diversity" of the county. His appointments so far, including the Owens administration holdovers, include seven women, three blacks and one Asian-American.

Also yesterday, Leopold appointed former Ehrlich administration official Alan R. Friedman as government relations officer, the county's chief lobbying job, and Andrea M. Fulton as personnel officer. Both positions were vacant. Marcia Kennai, the county's social services director, was re-appointed.

Fulton has served as executive director for the state Office of Personnel Services and Benefits.

Blackwell became fire chief in Prince George's County in 2001, and Owens tapped him to run the Anne Arundel Fire Department in 2004. Before becoming Prince George's chief, he served as a deputy chief there and in Wichita, Kan., where he worked for 23 years.

He succeeded Roger C. Simonds, who was forced out by Owens in 2004 amid criticism of his management practices and his department's soaring overtime tab. Under Simonds, overtime spending by Anne Arundel firefighters climbed in fiscal year 2003 to $7.2 million. Eight of the 10 highest-paid Anne Arundel County workers were firefighter supervisors, with many doubling their pay through overtime.

Blackwell was assigned to oversee the department's phase-in of a fourth shift of firefighters to reduce the overtime backlog. But the county has faced cost overruns in recruiting and training 140 firefighters. For the fiscal year ending June 30, the department exceeded its overtime budget by about $5 million.

Reducing overtime, he said, will be a major issue for Stokes and Leopold: "It's going to require some creativity and political will to address this."

Other challenges that Stokes faces, according to Blackwell include negotiating a new contract next year with the firefighters union, and expanding emergency medical services to serve the needs of an aging county.

Owens praised Blackwell's performance in an interview this week: "Chief Blackwell is an outstanding fire professional, with years of exemplary performance, and he has been a real asset in helping to manage changing issues in the fire service."

Blackwell, who lives with his wife in Prince George's County, said he wants to stay in the region, but he is uncertain whether he can remain in the fire service after 36 years. Said Blackwell: "I wish I could have gotten more time to finish what we started."

phill.mcgowan@baltsun.com

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