By Alan Burke
---- — PEABODY — The fate of a proposal designed to remove this city’s police and fire chiefs from civil service is now heading for Beacon Hill.
The measure, promoted by Mayor Ted Bettencourt, passed the City Council by a vote of 8-1 last week. The mayor expects the change will give the city more options in choosing its chiefs, including the replacement for police Chief Robert Champagne, who will retire at the end of May.
But before it can take effect, the change must be approved by the state Legislature, in the form of a home rule petition.
In getting that done, the mayor said he expects to work closely with Rep. Ted Speliotis, who serves West Peabody and Danvers. Bettencourt also expects to consult Leah Cole, winner of Tuesday’s special election for state representative in Peabody.
Asked if she would back the home rule petition, Cole said yesterday, “My job is to help the mayor.”
He has never worked for a home rule petition before and isn’t certain how difficult it will be to get action from the Legislature.
Speliotis declared himself similarly inexperienced in the procedure for this type of home rule petition, but said, “It does take time. It could take months. ... Much of it depends on local support. A strong vote (in the community) is important in the Legislature. We look at that.”
Bettencourt had precisely that in mind when he worked to get a vote in favor of the measure from the City Council.
“I wanted to show that the council is behind it by a wide margin,” he said.
Only Councilor Anne Manning-Martin voted against the change. Councilors Rico Mello and Barry Osborne were absent.
The mayor has complained that the civil service system locks him into choosing between the three top scorers on a standardized test with few other criteria. Removing the positions from civil service would give him more flexibility in hiring.
“It would provide me, as the hiring authority, the opportunity to look at a person’s overall skill set, what their leadership skills are,” the mayor explained.
In addition, giving chiefs a contract makes it easier to replace them, he said.
“I do not believe in lifetime appointments,” Bettencourt said. “All of us. ... we’re all held accountable for our performance.”
While the new process would allow the mayor to choose a chief from within the two departments, it would also make it easier to invite applicants from outside Peabody.
“The idea is to get the best person for the job,” Bettencourt said.
Beverly hires its police chief on a contract basis; Salem remains under civil service.
In opposing the removal from civil service, Councilor Manning-Martin said, “I don’t think the mayor gave compelling reasons to change the way we’ve been doing things.” A veteran of city politics, she also has a brother who is a Peabody firefighter.
“It’s detrimental to morale,” she suggested. “You have people who have worked for years under one system ... only to find the rules changed at the end of the game.”
Councilor Jim Liacos was one of those supporting the mayor’s position. “Having someone under contract keeps them sharp,” he said. “I think the mayor made a good decision.”
While he was careful to add he was not critical of Champagne, Liacos lamented the fact that a chief’s tenure could stretch over more than two decades.
Liacos rebuts the notion that a new system will impact morale, pointing out that the practice of keeping chiefs on the job for years on end denies advancement for others and, as a consequence, hurts morale.