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Huntington mayor replaces fire chief

Feb. 14, 2013 @ 11:45 PM

HUNTINGTON -- Huntington Fire Chief Randy Ellis will be relieved of his duties Monday, Feb. 18, and will be replaced by retired firefighter Carl Eastham.

Mayor Steve Williams confirmed the move Thursday and said he will ask City Council later this month to approve Eastham as the next fire chief.

"This has absolutely nothing to do with Randy Ellis," Williams said. "He has done an exemplary job as chief, but I think anyone who has observed happenings in local government knows the Fire Department has been in disarray for some time. I'm looking to have strong leadership so we can take the reins and guide the Fire Department in a direction of making it the prominent organization it once was."

If Eastham's appointment is approved by the council, he will become Huntington's seventh fire chief, including interim heads, in less than four years. The department has struggled with numerous staffing, financial and morale problems during that time.

Ellis is being removed after 11 months as chief. He took the job after serving with the department for 18 years. Williams said he asked Ellis on Thursday to remain with the department as a captain, the same rank he held when he was promoted to fire chief. Ellis could not be reached for comment.

"There are two captain positions open, and Chief Ellis has earned the right to decide which spot he would like to accept," Williams said.

Eastham retired from the Fire Department as a captain in 2011 after 26 years of service. He also was president of the local professional firefighters' union and was an officer at the state level for several years. After his retirement, Eastham took a job as a consumer advocate with the West Virginia Attorney General's Office. He will resign from that position effective Monday, he said.

Eastham also was a Democratic candidate for mayor last year but withdrew from the race about two weeks after Williams, also a Democrat, announced his candidacy. The same day that Eastham backed out of the race, he announced he was backing Williams.

Both Eastham and Williams told The Herald-Dispatch last year that Eastham's withdrawal had nothing to do with political favors or promises. They maintained that position Thursday.

"There was no quid pro quo," Williams said.

"There were no promises given and none expected, even though we knew some would look at it in that regard," Eastham added.

Williams said the change had little to do with Ellis' performance as chief. It was more about developing a relationship and building trust with Eastham during the past year, Williams said. Eastham served as an adviser to Williams on Fire Department matters during the mayoral race and actively campaigned for Williams last fall when he defeated Republican incumbent Kim Wolfe. Eastham also was a member of Williams' transition team.

"I have come to rely on Carl's counsel," Williams said. "It became apparent to me if I want to lead the department in the direction that it needs to be led, I needed someone who I already have a trusting relationship with. It's not that I didn't trust Chief Ellis, but we don't have time to be forging relationships. The time to act is now."

The Fire Department's union was frequently at odds with Wolfe's administration. Former chief Creig Moore resigned in 2011 after struggling to deal with overtime costs and after the union took a vote of no confidence in his leadership abilities.

An independent study of the department released in January 2012 made more than 150 recommendations related to governance and operations. Among the findings were a need for more staffing while implementing ways to cut costs, better record-keeping, a more active fire prevention bureau, better housekeeping at fire stations and a reversal in the "culture of unhappiness" within the department.

Poor morale will be one of the first things that Eastham said he hopes to change.

"Whenever you come to work, you have to show your employees it's going to be a good day," he said. "I want to bring that style of leadership back."

Council Chairman Mark Bates said he intends to support Eastham's appointment as chief when it comes up for a vote at the Feb. 25 council meeting. Even though the position must be approved by City Council, Bates said he believes the mayor has a right to hire and fire whomever he or she pleases without interference from the governing body.

"All department heads serve at the will and pleasure of the mayor," Bates said. "If he decides to go in a new direction, he has the right to do so."

Follow H-D reporter Bryan Chambers on Facebook or Twitter @BryanChambersHD.

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