Fire chief nominated for public safety director

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Annie O'Neill, Post-Gazette
With Mayor Luke Ravenstahl standing behind him, Michael Huss speaks with reporters after being named yesterday as the city's new director of public safety.
Click photo for larger image.

In a move lauded by City Council members and union leaders, Pittsburgh Mayor Luke Ravenstahl yesterday nominated Fire Chief Michael Huss to serve as public safety director.

That gives Chief Huss responsibility for coordinating -- and sometimes disciplining -- firefighters, police, paramedics and building inspectors, or nearly 2,000 of the city's 3,400 employees. That's in addition to the job of running the Fire Bureau, which he'll keep.

The mayor called him "a man who I think has the capabilities and will move our public safety sector and put our priority of keeping residents safe number one.

"This individual is qualified, capable and competent."

Chief Huss, 39, of Lincoln Place, said he would not "meddle" in day-to-day matters in the police, emergency medical services and building inspection bureaus. "I'm going to rely very heavily on the other public safety chiefs in their areas of expertise."

The mayor's first pick for the director's post, former Operations Director Dennis Regan, saw his nomination scuttled after he was accused of excessive interference in police matters.

The mayor said there was no formal selection process that led to the new pick. He made the decision based on the chief's "history of being a fine fire chief here and in Johnstown" and because he saw no conflict of interest in the chief serving a dual role.

Other chiefs are at the top of the disciplinary chain of command in their bureaus, but in the Fire Bureau, such matters go to a trial board of fire officials and rank-and-file.

In addition to coordinating the four safety bureaus in emergencies, the public safety director is assigned to enforce nuisance property laws and can quarantine the city.

Chiefs of the biggest unions representing public safety workers lauded the choice.

"Chief Huss has been not only more than cooperative," said International Association of Fire Fighters Local 1 President Joe King. "He's probably been the most active fire chief we've had in at least a decade."

"I'm very happy that they finally made a pick that everybody can agree on and is known for being fair," said James Malloy, president of the Fraternal Order of Police.

The two disagreed on whether he could perform both the director's job and the chief's, in the long term.

The directorship is "a hell of a responsibility," said Mr. King, but Chief Huss has "the energy to do it."

Doing both "will be difficult," Mr. Malloy said. "It'll burn him out."

Chief Huss said he'll rely on Assistant Fire Chief Francis Deleonibus, bureau Manager of Personnel and Finance Denise Hoss, and Emergency Management Director Ray DeMichiei to help him handle the dual role when it gets tough.

He has led the Fire Bureau since March 2005, following a six-year tenure as Johnstown's top firefighter. In both posts, he's dealt with budget cuts in financially distressed cities under state Act 47.

In nearly two years on the job, he has overseen recruitment and training of new firefighters after a six-year hiring freeze, significantly reduced premium pay, which had been running at $1 million a month, enhanced first responder medical training, upgraded the vehicle fleet, rewritten disaster plans to conform with federal standards and taken responsibility for coordinating the management of catastrophic events.

He also instituted polygraph tests as part of background checks of would-be firefighters.

An Irwin native, he got his undergraduate degree at Point Park College and a master's degree in public management from Carnegie Mellon University's H. John Heinz III School of Public Policy and Management. He worked as an emergency medical technician before becoming a firefighter and then an instructor at the Pennsylvania State Fire Academy.

For large portions of former mayor Tom Murphy's three terms, Kathy Kraus, director of the Office of Municipal Investigations, and then-Deputy Mayor Sal Sirabella, served as acting public safety director. The post was filled by then-Operations Director Robert Kennedy from 2003 through 2005.

Ms. Kraus remains director of OMI.

The nomination appears unlikely to face much opposition in City Council. Six council members attended the announcement in support of the pick.

Even Mr. Ravenstahl's mayoral rival, Councilman William Peduto, has previously suggested that Mr. Huss should get the job.

On Oct. 2, the mayor nominated Mr. Regan to the job. That choice was criticized because of his lack of any public safety experience.

It was withdrawn after police Cmdr. Catherine McNeilly accused him of meddling in police discipline, prompting a 50-day probe.

Mr. Regan was cleared of wrongdoing, but resigned Dec. 1. Cmdr. McNeilly was demoted for distributing a disciplinary report, but reinstated temporarily after initial hearings in her federal whistleblower lawsuit.

The mayor said Chief Huss would likely get a raise from his salary of $87,424, to put him on par with other top officials, who earn around $95,000.

The appointment leaves two major city positions -- solicitor and operations director -- open.


Rich Lord can be reached at rlord@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1542.


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