VISTA — Vista Fire Chief Ned Vander Pol has retired from his post just weeks after the city manager’s departure, throwing City Hall deeper into a state of uncertainty while also offering city administration a chance to try out a new department head hiring policy.
Vander Pol’s last day was Nov. 2, wrapping up a three-year tenure as fire chief and 23 years overall in the department. He submitted his retirement notice to city leaders on Oct. 13, the same day that former City Manager Patrick Johnson submitted his resignation letter.
In the letter, Vander Pol notes that he is pursuing a position with another fire department and indicates that severe strife among department staff had led him to depart.
Vander Pol described opposition from department members to his goals to “support a fire department where people were safe emotionally and physically and safe to grow personally and professionally” and to “feel happy and authentic in their lives inside and outside of work.”
“I have lost hope that a unified, collaborative, and happy [Vista Fire Department] can exist. I believed that I could influence a change in the interpersonal atmosphere putting an end to the civil war that has plagued the generations before me,” Vander Pol’s letter reads. “I realize now that change does not happen from the hopes of one.”email-retirement for me
The former chief goes on to state that he hopes his departure can lay to rest many of the frustrations and blaming that had occurred.
Vander Pol told The Coast News that his letter, obtained via a public records request, was intended for an internal audience and declined to comment on the specific issues going on in the department.
“Any organization has challenges or hurdles, and I don’t think Vista Fire Department is dissimilar. I wanted to leave some hope and optimism for the people that were there still and let them put some of the things in the past,” he said.
Miles Sweeney, president of the Vista Firefighters Association, which consists of nearly 90 members, declined to comment on Vander Pol’s retirement letter but wished the former chief well going forward.
“We want to wish Chief Vander Pol only the best in his future endeavors and thank him for his service to the city of Vista and the fire department,” Sweeney said.
In early November, city spokeswoman Andrea McCullough said city leaders had yet to appoint an interim fire chief. The hiring process for a new permanent chief is expected to take three to six months as the city implements a new hiring policy that involves stakeholder groups in the interview process.
The Vista City Council adopted a change to the city code in September which required the City Manager to approve department head hires with the council majority’s approval for 120 days, allowing administrators time to develop a long-term policy involving stakeholders in interviewing candidates.
Johnson tendered his involuntary resignation due to this policy, stating that it stripped him of his authority as outlined in his contract for the past 11 years.
Vander Pol stated that Johnson’s plans to resign partially influenced his decision to depart.
“Patrick leaving creates a big hole in the city,” he said. “He’s my boss, and that had an impact on my decision of whether to stay, for sure. We had a great working relationship.”
The city currently does not have an established policy for selecting department heads, but rather “the decision is made based upon the unique circumstances of each vacancy,” according to a staff report. In the past, the city manager had appointed individuals to some positions when it seemed to be a good fit or gone the route of a competitive recruitment process in the absence of an obvious candidate.
The City Council sought to establish a permanent policy that follows much of the city’s existing recruitment process, but with the addition of three stakeholder groups to interview candidates and make recommendations to the city manager.
These stakeholder groups would include one made of community members, another of employees, and another composed of city directors and city staff, explained to the City Council during an Oct. 27 workshop. To begin the process, the city would call for candidates with the help of an executive search team, screen all received applications, and conduct an oral technical interview.
Up to five candidates would then advance to interviews with the three stakeholder groups. These groups would produce a ranked list of recommended candidates for the city manager, who would make the final decision.
In a surprise turn, city council members said at the workshop they don’t need final input on the city manager’s selection as part of the policy. This marked a change from past meetings when they suggested that the majority of the council should have the power to approve or reject the City Manager’s selected to hire.
“Once we have a panel of experts make a recommendation, I want to support their decision,” said Councilmember Joe Green. “For me, this is just about transparency; this is about a standard process that never changes.”
In the case of the fire chief vacancy, the community stakeholder group would likely include the Vista Sheriff’s Station captain, a member of the Vista Fire Protection District, and Vista’s community safety commissioner. Employee stakeholders would consist of representatives from employee associations like Vista Firefighters Association and Vista City Employees Association.
Sweeney, speaking on behalf of VFFA members, said the policy gives more individuals a seat at the table.
“Workers within the city want to have their voices heard and want to be part of the process, and I think that is supported by the majority of the council. What we’re looking for is just that, just being able to have a say in who leads our individual departments, whether that’s public works or fire or administration,” Sweeney said.
He also requested that the city’s maintenance team be included in stakeholder discussions since they frequently interact with the fire department.
City staff said they looked at dozens of San Diego County and Southern California jurisdictions, including cities and school districts, to see if they had similar policies. Among neighboring cities, only Chula Vista was found to have a policy requiring City Council involvement in approving department heads, although it is not required.