Mayor Ted Bettencourt says he just wants to get the best candidate for the job, and in order to do that, he argues that Civil Service needs to be out of the picture.
Bettencourt is asking the City Council to remove both the police and fire chiefs' jobs from the jurisdiction of Civil Service. Longtime Police Chief Robert Champagne is retiring June 1 and choosing the city’s next chief is a critical decision Bettencourt doesn’t just want to leave up to a test score. It's the first time in 25 years the job has opened up.
Bettencourt appeared before the council’s Legal Affairs Committee Tuesday night to explain his proposal and walked away with a recommendation to the full council to act on the plan.
Jim Liacos and Bob Driscoll sat in on the meeting, chaired by Anne Manning-Martin, and both voted to support Bettencourt’s request, disagreeing with several concerns voiced by Manning-Martin. None of the other regular members of the committee (Mike Garabedian, Barry Osborne, Rico Mello and Dave Gamache) were actually able to attend.
“We all want the best candidate, the most qualified person, for this critically important position and I believe removing the chief position, for both police and fire, from Civil Service gives us the best chance of finding the right person,” said Bettencourt.
Otherwise, he said, there is little flexibility and he is left to just choose the top scorer among the three highest-scoring candidates on a promotional exam without much regard for talents and abilities. It's also very difficult to remove a chief from his or her post should that person’s job performance not be acceptable, he added.
Bettencourt said he has no issues with Champagne or Steven Pasdon, who has been Fire Chief for about 12 years and wouldn't be affected by the change, or other supervisory officers who may be eyeing a chance for promotion, but he doesn’t believe “lifetime appointments” to the job are beneficial for the community.
"All of us are judged -- all department heads, superintendents of schools, mayors, all elected officials are judged on our performance. And I think it's important to keep the...chiefs sharp and make sure they are acting in the appropriate way and [doing] what's best for the city," Bettencourt said.
As part of his research, Bettencourt spoke with many mayors and town managers and regardless of whether they still had Civil Service chiefs or not, the advice was uniform to move away from the system, he said.
In Beverly, which now has chiefs under contract, the change is working well, according to Mayor Bill Scanlon. The city had removed both chiefs from Civil Service and then hired an outside consultant to run an assessment center.
Civil Service chiefs are not just promoted on test scores
Manning-Martin pointed out Bettencourt could take advantage of a regional assessment center run by Civil Service that would offer more choices than just the top three test-scorers. Likewise, he is not required to hire the top candidate, but could choose among the top three.
If he did that, he would have to submit an explanation for such action to Civil Service authorities for approval, and the top candidate would have the right to appeal.
“I just think it needs more thought and more information. My instincts tell me it’s not fair to the men in the department to change the rules midstream for them,” she said. “For the reasons you mentioned, it seems those same [avenues] are already available to you in Civil Service.”
She also suggested Bettencourt research if it's possible to impose performance standards under the current system.
Bettencourt told Peabody Patch after the meeting he doesn’t believe that would be possible, noting there is no contract agreement with a chief under Civil Service.
The mayor should be able to pick his own team
Liacos, on the other hand, called for a vote, wholeheartedly siding with Bettencourt and saying he should have the ability to pick his own team.
He initially asked if there were any legal hurdles to clear and how long of a contract a chief might have. Bettencourt explained the council would have to vote to send a home rule petition to the legislature, which would then hopefully be approved and signed by the governor. As for contract length, three to five years, he said.
"I agree with this... Keeping somebody on a contract like that keeps them sharp, keeps them on their toes and keeps them fair as well," Liacos said.
"I do believe the mayor, the governor, the president, or whoever you are, you have the right to pick your own department heads," he said, noting it was Peter Torigian who first appointed Champagne and the chief has now served with three different mayors.
Manning-Martin also asked to see what exactly Bettencourt envisioned for a new hiring process – whether that would involve an assessment center, how much it might cost and any other major factors that would come into play -- before the council is asked for a vote.
Liacos interrupted at that point, wondering if the questions were getting ahead of the matter at hand – voting on the mayor’s request. He said he was comfortable taking a vote and then letting Bettencourt develop a plan.
Bettencourt said he didn’t want to be “presumptuous” and craft a plan before seeing if there was support for it.
“If I don’t have support for this, then I will go to Civil Service, request the test, take the top three scores and away we go,” he said.
Civil Service assessment centers still too restrictive
Bettencourt told Peabody Patch that even though there are options, the assessment center procedure with Civil Service is still restrictive and subject to approvals at every turn. He said it also doesn't offer any relief in terms of removing a chief.
"There are very few occasions when Civil Service protections aren’t in place," he said.
There are only three allowances for termination under the system: malfeasance, dishonesty or misconduct. "If we have an inept chief or someone who’s just over their head, malfeasance doesn’t have anything to do with it," said Bettencourt.
He said the assessment centers "clearly indicate to [him] that Civil Service is trying to adjust to changing times," but that only goes so far. He noted the city would have to request a regional assessment center and Civil Service could say "no."
As for internal promotion, Bettencourt said, he believes there are good candidates now for chief and hopes they are not discouraged from pursuing that with Civil Service removed from the equation. He said he did speak with senior officers in both departments to brief them on his proposal.
Deputy Police Chief Scott Carriere and captains Joe Berardino and John DeRosa sat in on Tuesday's meeting, but chose not to weigh in on the discussion.
The debate also revolved around school superintendents as well that night, by way of example, and Liacos and Bettencourt noted the city had a high rate of turnover on superintendents until more more years due to a number of conflicts and circumstances. None of that could have happened if there were similar Civil Service protections in place.
Manning-Martin argued, however, that situation proved to be costly to the district, highly political and lacking in any stability for the city's schools.
"I don’t want a weak chief, I don’t want a chief who fears politics with every decision he makes," she said. "I don’t want a chief who is inept and who doesn’t perform either."
The matter will now go before the full council on Thursday for a vote.