, Salem, MA

March 12, 2013

Take chiefs off civil service?

Peabody: Bettencourt wants 'a lot of options' when picking new police, fire leaders

By Alan Burke
Staff writer

---- — Peabody Mayor Ted Bettencourt is asking the City Council for more flexibility in the case of the city’s fire chief and police chief by taking both positions out of the realm of civil service. His request comes as police Chief Robert Champagne nears retirement on June 1.

“I want to have a lot of options,” Bettencourt said.

Any change would not impact current fire Chief Steve Pasdon.

Prior to making this proposal, the mayor said, he conferred with leaders in surrounding communities. Champagne’s impending retirement had the mayor thinking about the best way to go about filling his spot.

“It’s one of the most important things I’ll be doing as mayor,” he said. “And I don’t think an important decision like this should be made just on the basis of a test score.”

Under the current civil service procedure, applicants take a test and the mayor is asked to choose from among the top three scorers.

Instead, he envisions a new program where a test would be included, but other criteria would also be weighed heavily, including “role-playing” and other techniques designed to produce assessments of how an individual would handle difficult situations, or how they would deal with the media.

The process of removing a chief from civil service not only provides more flexibility in hiring, it makes removing the chief in midcontract easier, as well.

Most North Shore cities retain the civil service system for their chiefs, with Salem and Lynn as examples. Smaller towns are more likely to opt out of civil service. Beverly has its chiefs under contract.

“Many cities and towns are moving in this direction,” Bettencourt said.

“I’m glad it gives us more freedom,” Beverly Mayor Bill Scanlon said. “When we selected a police chief, we did not go through the civil service system.”

Labor lawyer Neil Rossman of Swampscott is a critic of efforts to remove chiefs from civil service. For one, he points out that mayors and selectmen are able to include criteria beyond test scores, namely an assessment procedure added by the Legislature. The choice is still limited, however, to the top three test scores.

More worrisome to Rossman is making it easier to fire a chief.

“Whoever is the chief should be free from political influence or public pressure,” he said, “like a judge who serves for life. ... He should be able to make hard decisions ... decisions that may be unpopular.”

Without civil service, chiefs could find themselves vulnerable to the whims of an ever-changing electorate. Under civil service, Rossman said, chiefs can already be removed for “misconduct, malfeasance or dishonesty.”

Finally, he warns that while mayors like Scanlon or Bettencourt might be above allowing their choices to be impacted by the political winds, no one can tell who might be serving in the future.

That reasoning, however, stung Scanlon, who said, “I wouldn’t want to create a bad process out of fear of a bad future administration.” He believes voters should have more faith in their ability to choose good leaders, leaders who can make personnel decisions without the constraint of civil service.

In Peabody, the issue would likely go first to the council’s legal affairs subcommittee.

“I have reached out to some of the councilors,” Bettencourt said. “I wanted to explain where I was coming from. ... I’m certainly asking for their support.”

The mayor expects the question to be decided prior to Champagne’s retirement.

Anne Manning-Martin, who chairs the subcommittee, is noncommittal on the proposal.

“I plan to do some research on the pros and cons,” she said. “I certainly would need more information. ... I’m looking forward to hearing the mayor’s rationale and the plan he is putting forward.”

About civil service, Manning-Martin said, “It has its pros and cons.” The mayor’s plan, she warned, “is not a slam dunk.”