RIO VISTA — A previously unenforced and misunderstood California Public Employees’ Retirement System rule could force the city of Rio Vista to do something it hasn’t done in several years – hire a full-time, permanent fire chief.
The question is whether the city is financially ready to do so.
City Manager Joe Tanner Jr. acknowledged the decision is to either hire another interim chief or hire someone full time. He said he’s “not ready” to make a recommendation and “in the future would be seeking direction on the issue.”
For the sake of continuity within the department, interim Chief Russ Sherman said finding a permanent successor is necessary. He said he told Tanner that a full-time chief should be recommended to the City Council.
“You need some sort of continuity,” he said, citing such things as short- and long-term planning and differing management styles. Not having that continuity would cause chaos, he said.
The last full-time chief was hired in December 2007, but lasted only a few months, said Capt. Ken Williams of the Rio Vista Fire Department. Since 2004, the position has been filled with either interim chiefs or permanent hires who didn’t last long.
Former interim fire chief Tom Myers manned the helm as an interim for nearly five years, until May. As a retiree annuitant, he budgeted his 960 allowable CalPERS hours throughout the year. His contract, he said, was renewed each year and then approved by the City Council.
That’s a no-no, and has been for quite a while, said Amy Norris, a spokeswoman for CalPers. The interim cannot be rehired at the same place year after year. Myers, she said, was hired in 2008 and “at that time there was a one-year restriction.”
” . . . You can only be hired as an interim once,” she said. “However that appointment can last for more than a year as long as there is an open recruitment and the other requirements are being met. The one-time-only rule is actually not new.”
With yearly contract approval, he was in effect rehired each year, which is different from the position lasting longer than a year.
Myers said that a couple of citizens complained to CalPers about his continued service to the city while in retirement, which opened scrutiny over his contract by the state agency. He argued that he didn’t fall into the “appointed position” category referenced in the first line of Government Code Section 21221(h), which pertains to CalPers retirement.
Because of how the city’s incorporation papers are worded, they lost the argument, Myers said.
“We kind of figured it was coming,” former mayor Jan Vick said of Myers having to step down. “You have to figure that when trying to fight PERS, you’re going to lose.”
Norris said that Myers had the choice of stepping down or reinstating himself, which means coming out of retirement.
“Most of the time (they’re) not really trying to trick (anyone), it’s an honest mistake,” she said. “It’s usually a misunderstanding. The rule has changed twice in the last two years. That could be the source of the misunderstanding.”
Keeping the position an interim was due to economics, Vick said, and she wondered if the city’s budget is ready for the expense of a full-time chief.
The CalPers issue will force the city to make that decision.
“The city is in better shape, but it’s not out of the woods completely,” Vick said.
Williams, who started with the Fire Department as a volunteer in 1983 and became a paid employee in 1993, said the last time they recruited for the chief’s position was the short-lived chief prior to Myers. He said they were going to recruit before Myers, “but the economy took a dive.”
Myers said he thinks the city is ready financially.
“It’s just not good each year to keep getting a new fire chief,” he said.
Reach Susan Winlow at 427-6955 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/swinlowdr.