SalemNews.com, Salem, MA

Opinion

March 19, 2013

Our view: Time to end civil service

Peabody Mayor Ted Bettencourt is on the right track with his effort to remove the city’s fire chief and police chief positions from the civil service system. We would go one step further and suggest that it is time to eliminate the system entirely.

The system is an outdated throwback to a time when public employees had no union protection, making them subject to discrimination and political pressure. Today, civil service is a cumbersome bureaucracy that handcuffs management decisions about hiring.

Under the current civil service system, a candidate for police or fire chief would take a test, with the mayor expected to choose from the top three scorers.

Bettencourt rightly feels that would limit his options. The decision is especially important in Peabody, with the impending June 1 retirement of police Chief Robert Champagne. (The move would not affect current fire Chief Steve Pasdon.)

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

If the City Council approves of Bettencourt’s plan, the city would be following the lead of communities like Beverly, which has its chief under contract.

That city’s mayor, Bill Scanlon, rejected the argument that eliminating civil service would leave chiefs vulnerable to the whims of elected officials.

“I wouldn’t want to create a bad process out of fear of a bad future administration,” he told reporter Alan Burke.

The change would need approval from the City Council. Anne Manning-Martin, who chairs the council’s legal affairs subcommittee, at least seems open to the idea.

“I do 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.”

Here’s hoping the plan moves forward. Police and fire chiefs do have protections these days, as seen in Beverly. And if the community feels the mayor is putting undue pressure on one of his department leaders, they possess the only tool needed to fix the problem — the ballot box.

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