BRADENTON -- City Council appointed one of late Fire Chief Mark Souders’ top aides to replace him on an interim basis even though the mayor warned the move could stir dissension in the department.
On the advice of Ward 1 Councilman Gene Gallo, a former fire chief, council voted unanimously to name Deputy Chief of Operations Chuck Edwards, 48, the interim fire chief during a special meeting Thursday.
Gallo said the department needs a definitive leader in case a crucial administrative decision crops up before the city names a permanent fire chief early next month.
Edwards and Souders’ other deputy, David Ezell, have shared chief duties since Souders died of an apparent heart attack Jan. 5.
“I think the citizens of this city deserve that, and I certainly think the men at the fire department deserve that,” Gallo said. “You have to have a person responsible. If we didn’t, it would be like having four hands on a steering wheel.”
But Mayor Wayne Poston said choosing an interim chief just weeks before a permanent chief is named -- Edwards and Ezell have submitted the only applications for the position -- could lead fire department employees to choose sides.
“I don’t share Mr. Gallo’s fear that you have to have somebody in charge or this is going to fall apart. ... I don’t think it’s wise, when we’re talking about two people that are already in an organization, to put one in charge temporarily and then maybe make the decision to put the other as the fire chief,” Poston said.
Gallo said he favored Edwards because of his seniority edge over Ezell, the department’s deputy chief of administration.
Edwards, a Manatee High graduate, has served the city for 22 years, rising from firefighter to lieutenant in 1999 to captain in 2001 to battalion chief in 2002 and deputy chief in 2004.
Ezell has served for 17 years.
“There’s no overbearing reasoning that I can see. ... Both of these young men are capable of being chief of the fire department. Both of them being capable, I basically just went with the seniority,” Gallo said.
Neither Edwards nor Ezell was available for comment Thursday. It was Ezell who conducted a press conference on the day Souders died and took the lead public relations role as the city prepared a full-honors service.
Gallo and other council members made it clear that Edwards does not necessarily have an inside track on the permanent post.
“I just hate to have it perceived that if we pick one of the two that the other one was, in effect, out of the running,” Ward 4 Councilman Bemis Smith said. “That’s not my feeling because I want to see their backgrounds and hear the legal input we can get.”
Council also passed a motion to post the fire chief position within the department for three days starting Thursday. Council members then will begin candidate interviews with the hope of naming a permanent fire chief as soon as possible.
City officials said they have no interest in looking outside the fire department for Souders’ replacement.
“It seems that Mark left two capable people in charge,” Ward 3 Councilman Patrick Roff said.
“I’m probably going to keep my search to those two. He knew his department more than I did. I think I can come to a decision pretty quickly.”
Souders was Bradenton’s fire chief for 14 years. He was hired from Cedar Hammock Fire and Rescue, where he had worked for 20 years.
City Clerk Carl Callahan said it has not been determined if Edwards will get a pay increase during his time as interim chief.