Pittsfield Committee Concludes Research on Civil Service

By Joe DurwinPittsfield Correspondent
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The Civil Service task force wants to meet with the city's police and fire chiefs again before making recommendation on whether to scrap the system for the top public safety jobs.

PITTSFIELD, Mass. — A city task force is preparing to conclude its mission to investigate an issue that has plagued municipal governance for several years.

The question of whether to have the jobs of police and fire chiefs in the Civil Service system has been a complex one, and the committee has heard arguments both for and against keeping the chief's position within the bureaucracy of a state agency that all parties seem to agree is badly ailing.

"We are at almost at the end of our evaluation, and we will have to make our recommendations," said Mary McGinnis, director of administrative services, on Thursday.

Civil Service systems originated in the late 19th and early 20th century, and proponents say it still offers a measure of immunity from political tinkering in public safety decisions. Several former Civil Service police chiefs, including the head of the Massachusetts Police Chiefs Association, however, have told the committee that most of the same protections can be provided with greater flexibility through modern professional contracts and transparent hiring practices.

"I think it's a terrible way to pick a chief executive," former Norwood Police Chief William Brooks said during a conference call with the group on Thursday. "To lock yourself into this numeric system is crazy."

Former Wellesle Police Chief Terrance Cunningham agreed, calling it "a heavily bureaucratic agency" that was often an impediment to towns finding the best candidate for their communities.

They described Civil Service in Massachusetts as a troubled, inefficient agency, and one whose methods are out of step with the actual qualification needs of communities in their police forces.  Short-staffed centers, delayed testing, and a failure rate of around 80 percent were also among the complaints cited.

"Civil Service is in total disarray in Massachusetts,"  said MPCA director Wayne Sampson last week. "They only service public safety employees, and they're doing a horrible job at that."

Out of about 350 police chiefs in Massachusetts, only 75 are still part of the Civil Service system; 150 of those communities use Civil Service for all officers within their departments. In 2010, a survey of Massachusetts police chiefs found that of 100 respondents, a majority favored taking the chief position out of Civil Service.

After a 13-year period out of Civil Service, Pittsfield placed the position of police chief back in through a Special Act in 1992, but it was thought too restrictive by former Mayor James Ruberto, who placed Robert Czerwinski and Michael Wynn in command of the Fire and Police departments, respectively, in a provisional capacity, to circumnavigate those requirements.

The possibility of removing these two department head positions from the Civil Service system again came under serious discussion early last year, during the revision of the city's charter. While members of that Charter Study Committee remained divided over the issue of Civil Service, the new charter stipulates that the city begin the process of making confirmed appointments for these positions.  

"As a task force we need to make a recommendation, but as a community we need to make a decision," said Chairwoman Pamela Green.

Green said there seemed to be an "overarching theme" that Civil Service is too problematic, but she wants the committee to deliberate further with its appointed members from the Fire and Police departments, both of whom were absent from this week's meeting.  

"That seems to be the 800-pound gorilla in the room," said attorney Michael McCarthy. "The Civil Service system seems to be broken, and no one at the state level is looking to fix it."

"I think the pro Civil Service proponents cite two things, job security and predictability of promotion," McCarthy concluded. "I think the main points that all of the proponents of non Civil Service have made is that the same protection, and maybe even somewhat better protections, can be put in place through collective bargaining agreement."

"As long as there are protections in the contract, it doesn't seem to matter whether it's Civil Service or not Civil Service," concurred Personnel Manager John D'Angelo. 

A draft summary of findings from the task force's investigation is being prepared by McCarthy for the group's review and final deliberation on what recommendations to make to the mayor at its final meeting on April 17.

Tags: acting appointments,   civil service,   fire chief,   police chief,   

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