North Adams Council OKs Withdrawal From Police Civil Service
NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — The City Council on Tuesday voted to dissolve its Police Department's participation in Civil Service, following in the path of surrounding communities.
City officials have discussed leaving Civil Service in the past, citing difficulties in recruiting officers who are often from the eastern end of the state.
"Civil Service has been here in the city since somewhere around 1940 ... Civil Service in Massachusetts came in 1884 so it's been around 124 years," Police Director Michael Cozzaglio said. "It's old, it's antiquated."
Cozzaglio told the council it was a matter of getting a larger pool of local candidates and giving the department a greater control over their qualification. The biggest components are the written examination for starting officers and the ability to appeal to Civil Service on disciplinary matters. (Civil Service also offers promotional examinations.)
"What we have found is the written examination doesn't cull the qualified candidates, it kind of shrinks the pool for us," he explained, saying candidates from the east aren't usually interested in moving. "Living here in North Adams, it's very difficult for us to recruit good, qualified candidates ... once we get through our local list, which we've done already, there's not one left."
The department would love to look within neighboring communities in Berkshire County to keep it local, he said. Cozzaglio said he's looking for veterans, college-educated officers, first responders, people with fluency in other languages, prior police experience and other translatable skills.
"Civil Service doesn't really look at that, it doesn't matter to them," he said. "You take a written test, you score that test and that's it. You could be extremely intelligent but lack a whole lot of common sense. We have to find that in-between."
The police director said he's tried to stop a "good enough" mindset and seek out qualifed officers. "We can see what's been going on nationwide," he said. "Right now we've got a real good bunch of officers."
Adams, he pointed out, has already left Civil Service and the governor is poised to sign legislation that will remove Williamstown. Both town's police departments listed similar complaints: a limited candidate pool that drew largely from the eastern end of the state and a sometimes lengthy process for hiring.
Civil Service was established largely to prevent patronage and instill a merit system into the procedure of hiring officers and certain other public employees including firefighters, alarm operators, and various state and local policing positions. Tests are given every couple years for different positions.
When a department needs employees, it sends a request with the number of positions available. That number is multiplied by two, one added, and that number of names from the top of the list sent back.
Cozzaglio says if he needs two officers he'll get five names: "I want 15 names."
Civil Service also hampers the department's ability to hire part-time reserve officers because candidates coming from Worcester east simply aren't interested.
In response to questions of how candidates would be ranked absent the Civil Service exam, he said the candidates would be examined by a state-accredited, independent assessment center. Instead of being able to appeal to Civil Service as a last resort on disciplinary action, officers will be able to go to arbitration, something that had always been an option.
"The police union fully supports this," Cozzaglio said. "They want to bring in good people. ... if we lived in eastern Mass we might not have a problem but we have a problem."
Civil Service is a state law so the city would have to have state Sen. Adam Hinds and state Rep. John Barrett III files legislation when the new Legislature goes into session in January. Still, Cozzaglio said he'll have to call for another list soon.
"I have to, I have to and I'm going to have to use Civil Service because this is not going to be gone in time for us to use this," he said. "I'm going to cross my fingers and see what we get."
The council was agreeable to the idea, voting 7-0-2 to leave Civil Service. Council President Keith Bona and Councilor Wayne Wilkinson abstained from discussion and voting because both have family members in the department.
But while councilors were supportive of Cozzaglio's request some had sharper questions for Fire Director Stephen Meranti, who was requesting the appointment of two permanent reserve firefighters.
"The reason that these two appointments are in front of the council is because, and this gets to the Civil Service process as well, Director Meranti went out for a list of reserve firefighters and there were four candidates who came forward," said Mayor Thomas Bernard. "One of them did not chose sign up with the city."
The top name on the list is from Boston; the next three are North Adams residents Ryan Richards, Joshua Sworzen and Mitchell Meranti. Both Meranti and Richards work for the Department of Public Services. Because they are city employees, the City Council had to approve their appointment and status of having two city-paid positions.
Mitchell Meranti, assistant inspector of wires, is also the son of the fire director and the mayor said he had submitted a financial disclosure. "I have determined that the financial interest is not so substantial as to be deemed likely to affect the integrity of the services which the municipality may expect from the employee," Bernard wrote on the order.
The councilors had concerns over the amount of overtime that the reserve firefighters would cost and how it might affect pensions. Councilor Marie T. Harpin had serious reservations over the appointment of current employees, the use of overtime to pay them and their physical ability to do the job after working 40 hours, and suggested waiting for the next examination list in November.
"I think it would be a good opportunity to see if there are more candidates available," she said. "I think normally if we have reserves ... one of the reasons is we don't pay the overtime. In this case here, we're definitely going to be paying them overtime as firefighters. I'm sure they're fine at what they do and they would be great firemen, but I'd like to offer the opportunity to other people in the community."
The city would have to offer a reason to bypass the Civil Service list, said Meranti, and "in my opinion, I don't believe, that's not a reason to bypass because they hold positions in the city. It's a benefit to us, really, that they're here all day long."
Meranti said most volunteer companies have people who work 40 hours at their regular jobs. These reserves would be part-time filling in largely weekends and nights, for all-calls, for vacations and inuries and would be limited to 500 hours a year.
"That's similar to what call firefighters do," he said. "It's not an uncommon practice in the state."
Their overtime would be calculated only on their firefighter position since their full-time positions are 40 hours. As for pensions, Cozzaglio explained that they would stay in their current Pension Group 2 until or if they become hired as permanent full-time firefighters, at which time they would shift into the public safety Pension Group 4. Their years of service would follow them but they would then been allowed to retire after 32 years or at age 55.
In answer to questions from Councilor Jason LaForest, Meranti said the department has 26 full-time firefighters but one is retiring and three are out because of injuries incurred on duty. The department is budgeted for four reserves but only has one.
Councilor Eric Buddington said he'd be happier if there was a time limit on how long they would be reserve before shifting to full time. Meranti said he didn't know the exact time frame but anticipated six retirements within the next five years.
"We get them in, they get trained, they move into the full-time positions," he said. "It's worked well in the past. Like I said, it's how I came on, it's how other people have come one. It's a proven way to starting at the bottom and working their way through."
Bona thought that denying these two employees the ability to train as reserve firefighters would also deny them the full-time jobs when they became open. He said he, too, was concerned with the overtime but didn't think there was a long line of people applying for these part-time posts.
Buddington pointed out they were at the top of the Civil Service list and so they were the best candidates.
"I understand everybody's concerns but we have two of our department heads here asking for making a recommendation to us," said Councilor Wayne Wilkinson. "We must support the people taking care of our city. If they thought this is the way to do it, this is the best way to do it."
The council voted 8-1 to appoint Meranti and Richards with Harpin voting against.
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