By Neil H. Dempsey
---- — SALEM — A City Council subcommittee effectively killed the mayor’s proposal to remove the police and fire chief positions from the civil service system last night after it got an earful from firefighters and officers who oppose the change.
As dozens of firefighters and police officers looked on, Mayor Kim Driscoll opened the hearing with a presentation on her proposal to abandon the current system and the process she envisioned replacing it.
As it stands now, the mayor chooses a new chief from the top three scorers on the civil service exam. Under the proposal, the city would open up the application process to external applicants, with the most qualified invited to participate in an assessment center.
Among other things, the new requirements would mean police chief candidates would generally need to have 15 years of experience in policing and at least a four-year college degree. Driscoll said the process would favor candidates with lengthy service records.
All qualified internal applicants would also be invited to participate in the center, and Driscoll said that change would mean more candidates could apply. Under the present system, only a set number of candidates can sign up for the test to become chief, an opportunity that’s based on rank and seniority.
“Internal candidates, I think, always have a leg up, frankly, in just about any position,” Driscoll said. “If you’re on the ground, know the issues, qualified — that’s always going to give you a leg up.”
The center would recommend three to five finalists, who would be interviewed by a nine-member advisory committee composed of city officials, a city councilor, a local resident, and representatives from unions, a human service agency and a public safety agency.
That committee would provide the mayor an evaluation report, and she would decide who to appoint — but her choice would still be subject to council confirmation. It would be the first time the council has had a say in who becomes chief.
Driscoll said the new system would be more well-rounded than the current one and would offer the city a more robust field of applicants to choose from.
“It’s not just about who happened to take the right exam at the right time and there happened to be an opening,” Driscoll said.
The civil service issue took on special timeliness when police Chief Paul Tucker announced recently that he’s running for state representative. Tucker said last night that he supported the mayor’s proposal because it focused on internal candidates and offered a better oversight system for appointments.
He also said that the Civil Service Commission itself was frustrating to work with, especially when it came to things like disciplinary actions.
“It’s a broken system, there’s no appetite to fix it, and it’s not going to get better,” Tucker said.
Fire Chief David Cody spoke next, arguing for his position to stay under civil service. Firefighter Ray Krajeski, president of the Salem Firefighters Union, argued for the same thing, saying a fire chief has to have a deep knowledge of the people he or she is working with, given the danger posed by the job.
“When it comes to a matter of life and death ... whoever that lead command officer is can look at five people and know their strengths and weaknesses at the snap of a finger,” Krajeski said. He added that civil service “is a good system; it’s worked. We haven’t had problems in Salem.”
Saying there would never be a need to hire a chief from outside the department, Lt. James Walker said he was upset the issue had come up to begin with.
“I’m insulted. I’m embarrassed that we’re even here talking about this,” Walker said. “This didn’t have to happen.”
Walker said the issue caused widespread concern in the police department.
“You have no idea the stress, the anxiety that’s going on in the department right now,” he said. “This is weighing heavily on a lot of people.”
Capt. Brian Gilligan said the current system had allowed Salem a string of excellent chiefs, and he objected to Driscoll saying the police and fire departments ought to be aligned with other city departments that are free to hire external candidates.
“When you’re talking about issues of use of deadly force and things of that nature, I’d say it’s a significantly different situation,” Gilligan said.
Several people who spoke at last night’s meeting said they weren’t worried about Driscoll trying to exert undue influence over their department, and Driscoll herself repeatedly said she had no problems with the current chiefs.
After the speakers were through, Councilor Arthur Sargent said that he opposed the proposal and that the current system kept cronyism out of the equation and made sure the people at the top could identify with everybody under their command.
“I believe somebody at the top should know what the guy below is going through,” he said. “You just can’t come walking in.”
Referring to Tucker’s run for representative, Councilor David Eppley suggested that any decision on the future of civil service wait until a time when the department wasn’t facing the possibility of a vacancy.
“We already have people in the pipeline who are ready to go,” Eppley said.
Last night’s meeting was to consider the mayor’s request that the council send a home rule petition to the state legislature to remove the chiefs from civil service. Councilors opted by a vote of 10 to 0 to send the matter back to the full council meeting tomorrow night with a negative recommendation.
It will still take a vote by the council to formally defeat the proposal.
Councilor Heather Famico had voiced support for Driscoll’s plan but ended up voting with the majority.
Councilor Joe O’Keefe did not participate in last night’s meeting, as City Solicitor Beth Rennard advised him that having two sons in the Fire Department meant he had a financial interest in the matter.
Neil H. Dempsey can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.