MODESTO -- Modesto wasn't deluged with applications for police chief, but six candidates have been chosen for panel interviews to start early next month, officials said.
Human Resources Director Joseph Lopez said 31 people applied for the job, including three from within the Police Department. Former Chief Mike Harden retired in August after 28 years with the MPD; Gene Balentine is acting police chief.
Council members agreed to bump the maximum salary to $180,000 a year after the initial response to a nationwide recruitment was "less than what he had hoped for," said City Manager Greg Nyhoff, who is responsible for hiring the new chief.
The salary will depend on the person's qualifications. The top-step salary for police chief in Modesto has been $165,765, but the new chief won't get the "3 percent-at-50" law enforcement pension that has stressed government budgets across California.
Turlock hired Police Chief Rob Jackson in February at a starting annual salary of $157,000 after considering 43 applicants. Stockton's salary for police chief tops out at $190,340 a year.
Nyhoff said increasing the salary offer served to attract some strong candidates for the Modesto job.
"Modesto faces some challenges where we have seen crime rates escalate in the past seven months," he said. "It was important to bump the top-level salary to make sure we get qualified candidates, and we do have that."
The city is setting up three panels for closed-door interviews with the six candidates, including one composed of law enforcement officials from the local area. The other panels will be made up of city department directors and seven community members.
Decision by December
Following the panel interviews, three finalists will move on to talks with the city manager. Nyhoff said he expects to announce the new chief by early December.
The top cop will manage a department with 311 employees, including 232 sworn officers and 79 other staff members. According a recruitment pamphlet, the city has looked for an "astute leader with strong command presence and respectable reputation."
City leaders are advocates for community policing, National Night Out activities and Neighborhood Watch groups, so the chief is expected to be "visible and approachable in the community."
Beside a recent spate of violent crime, the city has contended with park vandalism, rampant metal theft and graffiti.
"I am excited to see how the recruitment goes," Councilman Dave Lopez said. "Maybe someone will bring in some new ideas."
When they hire top managers, cities and counties in California often close the selection process to the public, but it's not done that way everywhere. Public interviews of top candidates are common in large cities and in some states.
Nyhoff said public interviews were held for the three finalists before he was hired as an assistant city manager for Colorado Springs in 2006. He said it's possible the finalists for police chief here could be introduced to the public, but the main focus will be getting meaningful input from the community panel.
Mayor Garrad Marsh said he's leaving those decisions to the city manager.
"I don't know if it's going to be open or not, and I have not asked him that question," Marsh said this week. "(The council) normally gets a list of (candidates) who are coming forward and what their qualifications are, so we are aware of what is going on."
Lopez, the human resources director, said executive recruitments often are more difficult in uncertain economic times. Public service professionals are less inclined to change jobs as pension benefits are eroded and local governments cut their budgets.
The benefits package for the Modesto job includes a pension with a minimum retirement age of 55, while the previous chief retired at 50 with pension benefits. Other benefits will include a health plan, $120,000 in life insurance coverage, deferred compensation, and a city car or auto allowance.
Although just more than 30 applications is not a large pool, "we feel we have very strong candidates," Lopez said.
Bee staff writer Ken Carlson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (209) 578-2321.