YPSILANTI, Mich. - Ken Hobbs was sworn in as the chief of the fire department on Saturday, June 8 following his initial rejection by former City Manager Darwin McClary.
McClary initially overlooked Hobbs by selecting Captain Phil Kamm of the Livonia Fire Department for the position. At the time of Kamm’s appointment by McClary, Hobbs had been the acting interim fire chief following the retirement of former Fire Chief Max Anthouard on Jan. 4.
Hobbs was well supported and respected by many members of the community including former Fire Chief Jim Roberts, Washtenaw County Commissioner Ricky Jefferson and Shoshana DeMaria, president of the Ypsilanti Willow Run Branch of the NAACP. In addition, the staff at the Ypsilanti Fire Department wrote a letter in support of Hobbs to the city council.
Hobbs said he believes if he did not have the support of the department, he would not have achieved his appointment as chief.
“When [McClary] called and says ‘I’ve offered someone else the position,’ then I did what I could . . . and that was make people aware of it . . . I couldn’t have done it without their support,” Hobbs stated in an interview on May 31.
Ypsilanti's chief of fire has been selected from within the department since its founding in 1895. Maintaining the tradition of hiring from within is a goal Hobbs hopes to achieve by preparing staff with the necessary training and experience for the position in the future.
"I felt like I was obligated to do this because I was internal," he said. "I went through the assessment center and that’s something we’d never done before, so I prepared myself . . . I prepared myself to go through the oral interviews. I went through the oral interviews. We went from 10 candidates to two . . . it took a week to make a decision . . . (even so) I was not anticipating getting the job.”
Ypsilanti Mayor Beth Bashert revealed that Kamm had already signed an employment contract for the position by the time of McClary’s resignation, according to an article by MLive. However, Hobbs has stated that to his knowledge Kamm did not sign the contract.
Kamm was made an offer and it was rescinded when it became clear that McClary was to be terminated, according to Hobbs. However, it was announced through a City of Ypsilanti Professional Firefighters Local 401 Facebook post on May 11 that Hobbs had been welcomed as the new fire chief.
In the Ypsilanti community, there has been speculation that racial motivations came into play in the hiring of Kamm, who is white, over Hobbs, who is African-American.
According to the Ypsilanti City Attorney, John Barr, within Hobbs’ employment contract, there is a clause which mandates a non-disparagement agreement. This agreement prevents Hobbs, as employee of the city, from speculating McClary’s decision not to hire him. When being interviewed Hobbs was “tactful” with his word choice.
When asked about these negotiations, he stated that he was in an “awkward spot.” The department had been without a contract for two years and contract negotiations were focused primarily on health care benefits, retirement benefits and wages.
In a special city council meeting on March 7 regarding the controversy of the fire chief selection, the Ypsilanti City Council voted unanimously to accept the resignation of former City Manager Darwin McClary in a 7-0 vote.
The meeting had 30 minutes allocated for public comment prior to a closed session to further discuss McClary’s resignation with the city attorney and a labor attorney. Fifteen members of the community came out to speak in favor of Hobbs. Resolutions No. 2019-052 and 053 both passed 7-0 with Andrew Hellenga as the new acting city clerk and the new city manager as Frances McMullan.
At a City Council meeting on March 5, 15 additional community members came out in support of Hobbs, including Mayor Pro Tempore Lois Richardson.
During the March 7 meeting, McClary stated that the basis of his decision to select Captain Kamm as fire chief was made due to his credentials, which he believed surpassed those of Hobbs.
Ypsilanti’s fire department has had to reduce its staff due to financial constraints, according to Hobbs. Because of reduced staffing in both the City of Ypsilanti and Ypsilanti Township, as well as the limited staffing available in Superior Township, all three municipalities have an automatic mutual aid agreement.
Hobbs said that in the event of a fire, the city would receive assistance from Ypsilanti and Superior Townships. The city’s fire department is currently being staffed by 15 personnel. However, Hobbs considers the department to be experiencing a “transitional period.”
The department recently received a second Staffing for Adequate Fire & Emergency Response Grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, allowing for the hiring of four new staff for three years.
This, along with an agreement from the city to hire two new staff, will allow the department to have 21 total staff. Of these 21 staff, 10 are probationary firefighters, meaning they are in their first year of service with the department.
“It’s kind of an exciting time right now because there’s so much change-over, but it's kind of like all that unknown,“ Hobbs said. “You work with a lot of guys, you learn their personalities, and we’ve got a lot of new people and with a lot of new personalities, and you’ve got to figure out how everyone fits together . . . It’s a lot to look forward, but a lot to do.”