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Buffalo fire commissioner retires on short notice

Buffalo Fire Commissioner Garnell W. Whitfield Jr. retired this week from the position he has held since 2010, citing health concerns, the need to assume more responsibility for caring for his aging parents and hoping to spend more time with his family.

"I've been wonderfully blessed to have had this opportunity," Whitfield said. "I love the City of Buffalo. I love the residents. I love the mayor. I love this department. I was committed to staying longer, but things changed for me that necessitated my retirement at this time. A number of things personally deserve my full attention."

The decision came quickly. Whitfield informed Mayor Byron W. Brown on Thursday of his plan to retire, effective on Friday.

"I thank Commissioner Whitfield for his hard work and dedication to the City of Buffalo and its fire department over the past three decades, and I wish him a happy and healthy retirement," Brown wrote in a statement.

Whitfield, 60, began his career with the Buffalo Fire Department in September 1984 as a front-line firefighter and rose through the ranks. He was a chief fire administrator, deputy commissioner of administration and deputy commissioner of emergency medical services prior to Brown appointing him as commissioner in January 2010.

But in March 2016, there was an indication of soured relations between Local 282 members and the Fire Department's top official. Buffalo firefighters voted no-confidence in their boss. More than half of the department’s 700 members participated in the vote, and about 85 percent supported the no-confidence motion. At the time, Whitfield attributed it to union unhappiness over steps he was taking to modernize the Fire Department.

On Friday, Whitfield said the no-confidence vote had nothing to do with his abrupt decision to retire now.

"That's just politics," Whitfield said. "I'm not concerned about that. It was just a vote taken by a group of disgruntled people ... who wanted to get it on record. As you can see, it hasn't bothered me one bit."

However, Whitfield also was the focus of a recent city comptroller report that was critical of Whitfield for not doing enough to implement recommendations from a February 2016 audit.

By not acting on the comptroller's recommendations, the problems – particularly inflated overtime hours and earnings for civilian employees and emergency responders – only got worse.

Brown's spokesman Michael J. DeGeorge said Parking Commissioner Kevin Helfer, who sits on the mayor's finance subcommittee, will begin working with Comptroller Mark J. F. Schroeder's office on implementing the recommendations.

Whitfield said he was committed to staying on the job longer, but other concerns compelled him to retire. He is still recuperating from major surgery he had in February, and he said he may have to have more surgery. Also, his aging parents have health concerns, and he wants to be more available to help them.

"My family needs me, and I need my family," he said. "And I have to get into a routine to rehab and get better, and I can't do that while on the job."

He said the community and the department deserve a commissioner's full attention, something he doesn't think he can provide now.

"To serve in this capacity draws from everything in your life. It's a 24/7 commitment to this department and residents in this community," he said. "I'm not able to fulfill those duties in a manner consistent with my expectations of myself."

He said he will be around for the transition, perhaps in a consultation role or in whatever capacity he is needed. Whitfield didn't rule out the possibility of working again in service to the community or even with the mayor, saying he believes he still has some work left in him, just not within the capacity as commissioner.

"I've been here a long time. This is an opportunity for me to grow and take some steps," Whitfield said. "I fully support the mayor, and I'm thankful for his support of me. I believe the Lord is speaking to me that it's time to grow. It's time to move on. I'm looking forward to growing, and I believe that this is going to provide that opportunity for me."

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