, Salem, MA

March 12, 2014

Our view: Time to take chiefs out of civil service

The Salem News

---- — Tonight, the City Council will hold its first hearing on Mayor Kimberley Driscoll’s proposal to remove Salem’s police and fire chiefs from the civil service system.

We think the plan deserves support for the simple reason that the city needs to be able to pick the best people for its most important jobs.

Under the current rules, a new chief must be chosen from among the top three candidates based on scores on a promotional exam. With few exceptions, outside candidates, no matter how qualified, need not apply.

Imagine a corporation looking for a new CEO deciding to limit its options to three people already in the office. It simply doesn’t make sense, and it’s not an approach the city uses to fill other high-ranking positions.

In a letter to the council, Driscoll said the plan is “identical to actions taken by both Beverly and Peabody recently, and would allow myself or future mayors to select a candidate for the chiefs’ positions based on a more robust and informative set of criteria than civil service scores alone, should there be a vacancy.”

The city’s police and firefighter unions, meanwhile, are using the “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” argument.

“We have internally developed great leaders to run this department, and there is no reason to believe this won’t continue in the future,” police Lt. James Walker and Patrolman Robert Phelan said in a letter to City Council members. “There is absolutely no need for the possibility to bring in an outsider to oversee the department’s daily operations.”

While noting that Beverly and Peabody dropped civil service, the pair wrote, “just because they are doing it doesn’t make it right or necessary.

“Both of those aforementioned departments had severe command and leadership problems not found here in Salem.”

That’s true. But it is also true that much of those command and leadership problems occurred while those departments were part of a civil service system that made it difficult, if not impossible, to make needed, timely changes.

And removing the city from civil service doesn’t mean an internal candidate won’t get the job, as evidenced by Beverly’s hiring of longtime officer Mark Ray as police chief in 2007.

Proponents of civil service say it protects police and fire chiefs from political pressure or the whims of a capricious mayor. But those protections exist outside civil service. Beverly, for example, has its police chief under contract. And if citizens don’t like the way the mayor is managing the public safety departments, they have the power to make a change at the ballot box.

The civil service system is 130 years old and has long outlived its usefulness. The city needs the flexibility to hire the best person for the job — not simply the best person in the room.