VISTA — The new fire chief in Vista is already blazing a trail as the first department head chosen through the city’s new stakeholder committee process.
Gerard Washington, who has over 30 years of firefighting and fire leadership experience in Wisconsin, was selected in late June and will begin his post on Aug. 14, according to city officials.
Washington has served as fire chief in the village of Menomonee Falls since 2020. Prior to that, he spent over 28 years in the Milwaukee Fire Department as an assistant fire chief and battalion chief, among other roles.
“He’s got 30 years of experience in fire service, he’s a great communicator and has shown his leadership skills in the departments he’s worked for in the past,” Vista City Manager John Conley said. “I found him to be a very capable and insightful guy who had great communication skills, and I’m confident he’ll be able to lead the department in the right direction in the future.”
Washington’s hire was the first to be conducted through a new city policy requiring a panel of stakeholders representing employee groups and community partners to be included in interviewing candidates for department head positions.
The fire chief hiring panel included representatives from the Vista Firefighters Association, Vista City Employee Association and the Vista Fire Protection District, among others.
While the final hiring decision still remains with the city manager, panelists were able to make recommendations and provide insight during the process.
One panelist, Vista Fire Protection District Board President Jim Elliot, said it was important for his agency to be involved, since the fire chief oversees both the boundaries of Vista as well as the separate boundaries of the fire district to the east.
“It’s very appropriate that the fire protection district would have an opportunity to meet the new candidate … I was very happy to be there and have the opportunity,” Elliot said. “Our board cares deeply about who this person is going to be, and [whether] they understand that they have to wear two hats.”
Vista has been without a permanent fire chief since the November retirement of Ned Vander Pol, who shared internally that he was leaving due to severe strife in the department.
Just weeks prior, former city manager Patrick Johnson resigned in opposition to the department head hiring policy adopted by the City Council in September, which he said hampered the hiring authority afforded to the city manager in his contract.
In addition to involving stakeholder groups, the policy originally included a six-month sunset clause requiring a City Council majority to approve all hiring decisions made by the city manager. However, the council agreed to remove this clause a couple of months later.
City leaders spent about four months finalizing the new stakeholder process before beginning their search for fire chief candidates in April. Recruiting firm Koff & Associates conducted a national search in the spring and sent the top four candidates to the panel for further consideration.
Panel members ranked the candidates, and Conley was left to review stakeholders’ recommendations and make the final selection as city manager.
“I think it’s helpful to have the insight of the panelists since they all have various levels of technical expertise or community understanding,” Conley said. “I thought the process was extremely helpful, and I think it will be helpful to vet the candidate for the other positions.”
Other groups represented on the panel included the city’s employees, maintenance and chief officers’ associations, the Sheriff’s Department and the Vista Community Safety Commission.
City executive management staff, including directors of human resources and finance, also participated.
There are currently three other department head vacancies in Vista — assistant city manager, engineering director and community development director — that will be filled through the same panel process in the coming months.
Each panel contains slightly different employee groups and community partner representatives depending on the department head being hired. The panel for the community development director, for example, will include representatives from the Vista Planning Commission and Vista Chamber of Commerce.
Washington could not be immediately reached for comment.