Selectman pushes racial 'balance' in firefighter hiring

Staff Writer

The West Point Fire Department takes a necessary step toward meeting its staffing needs but not before racial overtones interject into the process.

During Tuesday night's meeting, Fire Chief Ken Wilbourne gave Selectmen four names -- Dylan Davis, Gregory Hudson, Darrel Thomas Jr., and Samuel Harrell -- as potential hires to fill three positions.

But during a study session Monday night, at least one selectman pushed an effort to "balance" the racial make up of the department and spread opportunity equally.

During Monday night's discussion and again Tuesday night, Wilbourne said he'd interviewed all four and called them "good, local candidates." Of the four, Davis, who lives in Montpelier and works for the Starkville Fire Department, is the only one who currently is a certified firefighter.

The other three would have to go through the state fire academy.

Without minimal discussion Tuesday night, the board hired Henderson, Thomas, and Harrell.

During budget talks earlier this year, Selectmen had agreed to add two positions in the budget year that started July 1 as part of an effort to get the city's fire rating down to a Class 5. That would require seven certified firefighters per shift.

The city hired two non-certified firefighters earlier this year and is working to get them into the academy. In addition, it planned to hire one in August and one in January to spread out the budget impact.

But a certified fireman left the department July 31, opening up another spot.

The state Rating Bureau has been giving the city time to get the people hired and in place to have full shifts, but the loss of the certified person has added pressure, especially since it is taking as long as a year to get non-certified candidates in the seven-week Fire Academy.

During Monday night's discussion, Wilbourne said he'd like the board to consider hiring three now -- the certified firefighter and two others -- so "we don't have to go through this process again in January."

"I'm trying to make it look fair and balanced, right now it is bad off," Ward 5 Selectman Jasper Pittman said, referring to the racial makeup of the department's employees.

Of the four candidates, Henderson and Thomas are African-American and Davis and Harrell are white.

During Monday night's discussion, Pittman said he'd be willing to hire two of them now to "get the ratio up."

"When we get balanced, then okay," he stated, noting the police and public works departments better represent the racial make up of the community, but the fire and electric department linemen didn't.

"It's been the elephant in the room for too long. We neglect the African-American community in this town...we need to make the playing field level," he continued, saying the city needed to give African-Americans access to "good-paying jobs" to help raise their "quality of life."

In response, Wilbourne said he understood Pittman's stance, but "I never looked at the color of a person's skin or their sex. When they are in all that gear, you can't tell sex or skin color. We just want the best."

During Tuesday night's meeting, board members made no reference to race. The only question came from Selectwoman Leta Turner who asked if hiring three now took some of the pressure off from the Rating Bureau and avoided having the revisit the issue in January.

When Wilbourne said it did, the board voted for Selectman Keith McBrayer's motion to hire the three.