It could be April before Gainesville officials decide on a new police chief, according to City Manager Kip Padgett.
Padgett, who originally wanted to have a new leader at the helm by mid-March, said last week the number of people applying for the job may mean the decision takes longer.
"We’re going to have to take our time with the search," Padgett said. "We’re getting a lot of qualified folks."
On Thursday, the city had received approximately 50 applications for the soon-to-be-vacant chief’s position. Interest for the position has come from across the state, within the department "and beyond," Padgett said.
The city has been seeking a new police chief since Frank Hooper retired at the end of 2009. The city installed former Deputy Chief Jane Nichols as the department’s interim chief in January, but she announced her retirement last month, giving the city 30 days to find a replacement.
Nichols said she gave notice after learning the city planned to go ahead with a process of advertising the position for both internal and outside applicants. The 28-year veteran said she took the post with an understanding that the city would not conduct an outside search.
At the time, Padgett said he hoped to have a new chief installed by the time Nichols leaves March 17. Padgett said Thursday he plans to confer with the department’s two captains to decide how the department will be led until a new chief steps in.
"We’ll get together and see what the best course is to go," Padgett said.
While he said he thought Nichols would have been a good leader for the department, Lowell McNeal, a former employee of the Gainesville Police Department and the president of the Gainesville-Hall Fraternal Order of Police, said he hopes the city will choose a chief who can identify with patrol officers.
"I just want to see a good person come on, somebody who’s police-oriented and who will battle for his men," McNeal said.
But quality chiefs cost.
Qualified chiefs to lead departments the size of Gainesville’s usually take a salary of about $90,000, said Frank Rotondo, executive director of the Georgia Association of Chiefs of Police. An advertisement on Gainesville’s Web site offers a salary between $62,171 and $93,267 for the chief’s position. Comparatively, an advertisement for a similar position in Rome offers between $59,000 and $98,000.
To get a qualified applicant that will stay, Rotondo said Gainesville will likely have to pay a salary at the higher end of the advertised salary. The recession-era "buyer’s market" for employers does not apply to police chief salaries, he said.
"If you want quality, you have to pay for it. That’s the bottom line — that’s the bottom line in anything, whether it’s a Maytag appliance or an upper-level appliance," Rotondo said. "It’s just one of those things, and what happens when you get the most qualified person and you’re willing to pay them for it, you’re overall reducing the liability on the people of the city. Because the decisions made by the chief have a certain impact on civil suits."
Gainesville is one of the few cities in the state now searching for a police chief, said Rotondo. Savannah has been conducting a search for at least four months, he said. Rome also has an advertisement for a police chief on the state police chief
association’s web site.
"There’s usually an opening or two at any given time," Rotondo said.
While Gainesville continues its search, it is likely the city has suitably trained command staff to keep the department strong without a chief, Rotondo said.
"If you’ve got a little department of five people and you lose the chief ... then it might be more problematic, especially if you get a complaint and they don’t know how to handle it," Rotondo said. "... (Gainesville is) a nationally-accredited department, as well as a state-certified agency, which means they’re better than the average bear."