Civil Service coverage for chiefs splits Pittsfield task force


PITTSFIELD -- As they begin forming a recommendation on Civil Service coverage for the city's police and fire chiefs, at least three members of a task force studying the issue seem convinced the positions should be removed from the statewide system.

However, task force members representing the city's police and fire unions, who've spoken in favor of keeping Civil Service as a protection against political influences in hiring, firing and promotion decisions, were not present during the group's meeting on Thursday.

Another meeting was scheduled for April 17 at City Hall for the task force to try to finalize its recommendation.

"I would love to have a consensus," said Pamela Green, who is chairwoman of the task force, which was appointed by Mayor Daniel L. Bianchi to recommend on the city's continued involvement in Civil Service. The system now covers police and firefighters, including the two chief positions, and some other city employees.

Task force member Michael McCarthy and Green said they will begin to summarize the group's findings and formulate a draft recommendation to discuss at the April 17 session. Green will then prepare a final report for the mayor.

The task force, which previously interviewed a number of public safety officials and a representative from the Civil Service system, heard from two police chiefs via a teleconference on Thursday. Terrence Cunningham, police chief in Wellesley, and William Brooks, the chief in Norwood, both serve in communities that have dropped Civil Service for their departments.

They said it has become common among departments in eastern and central Massachusetts to leave Civil Service, typically citing slow responses from the office, which they said has been "grossly underfunded" for at least five years.

The Civil Service job candidate and promotion testing system also is restrictive, the chiefs said, in that it is difficult to hire someone based on a written test without justifying why the highest scorer was not chosen, even if they seem better qualified because of experience or leadership qualities.

The political influence concern can be addressed through an employee contract, they said, which should include that a chief could only be fired for just cause.

Brooks added at one point that political influences on a chief would be much more difficult today than when Civil Service was established in the early 1900s because of the pervasiveness of news media and social media.

Both current Pittsfield chiefs, Police Chief Michael J. Wynn and Fire Chief Robert Czerwinski, have said there are problems with Civil Service but that its testing and other procedures could be taken advantage of more efficiently by the city.

Both men are, however, technically a police captain and a fire deputy chief who were appointed several years ago in an acting capacity. Former Mayor James M. Ruberto, who made those appointments, was critical of the Civil Service system and did not make the appointments through that format, which means the positions are technically vacant.

Bianchi, who became mayor in 2012, has left the situation in place after also expressing dissatisfaction with Civil Service. He appointed the task force this year, saying he wants to resolve the situation.

Green and other task force members deplored the fact Pittsfield's chiefs remain in a limbo situation. "As a community, we have to make that decision going forward," Green said Thursday. "We owe it to our chiefs."

Police Officer Jeffrey Coco, who is the police union president, and firefighter union President Timothy Bartini, both task force members, have said the status of the chiefs negatively affects morale among rank and file officers and firefighters.

In discussing what they have heard both pro and con, members Green, McCarthy and city Personnel Director John DeAngelo indicated they favor dropping Civil Service for the chiefs.

"Civil Service seems to be broken," McCarthy said, adding that he believes there are other ways to assure an appointee is not subject to political pressures.

DeAngelo said he hasn't heard of problems from those officials who have dropped positions from Civil Service, as long as there are contractual protections.

Green said she is concerned that Pittsfield could become mired in an underfunded Civil Service system that many other committees are leaving, putting the city at a disadvantage.

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