Clarence Fanto: Picking chief shouldn't be politicized
May the best man or woman win.
That should be the guiding principle for selecting police and fire chiefs in Pittsfield. But how to determine "best"?
Ah, there's the rub. It's clear from the city's tangled history of selections by a succession of mayors that an objective standard has to be met. The civil service test, open to all qualified officers who seek the post, needs to be restored as a significant determining factor in order to avoid politicizing one of most important jobs in any city or town.
It's encouraging that Mayor Daniel Bianchi intends to form a separate panel to resolve the issue, removing it from the city's Charter Review Charter Committee, which has many other fish to fry -- notably, the need to extend mayoral terms from the current, archaic two years.
In recent years, the list of top civil-service test scorers has not been in play -- mayors have circumvented the process by naming acting police and fire chiefs, subject to City Council approval. Currently, Michael Wynn and Robert Czerwinski are acting police and fire chiefs, respectively.
They may well be effective leaders but with "acting" in front of their titles, both lack the measure of full, long-term authority. Both support the system of choosing chiefs through civil service. Police and firefighter unions agree.
Firefighters Local 2647 has forced the issue, and rightly so, threatening legal steps to require the mayor to pick a permanent chief from the top three who passed the civil service exam last year -- along with two deputies, Czerwinski is among them. The fire chief's post has been a revolving door with three in the past 10 years, all mayoral appointments.
Wynn was named acting police chief by former Mayor Ruberto the same way. A new list based on an up-to-date exam would need to be created in order to choose the next police chief.
The key point is to remove politics. Not since 2003 has Pittsfield had a permanent police chief; the city has gone six years without a fully titled fire chief.
Two police union leaders offered valuable perspective in a letter published in Thursday's Eagle, pointing out the pitfalls of political appointments by citing what happened in the 1980s after the city removed the police chief's post from civil service for the first time in 70 years. During that decade, there were three brief acting tenures, one temporary chief and two years without any chief. Fed up, Pittsfield voters returned the post to civil service in 1991.
While it's true that well-qualified candidates are not always the most effective test-takers -- that's the case in all walks of life -- union leaders Matthew Hill and Jeffrey Coco noted that there's much more to the civil service score beyond the exam, including consideration of education, training, experience and an oral interview. Anyone across the state can take part in the process, if the city chooses. The mayor weighs in by picking one of the three top scorers, not necessarily the No. 1.
Berkshire residents are well-acquainted with recent and current difficulties involving police chiefs in some of our smaller towns who are political appointees chosen by local government leaders. Some large cities across the nation have experienced unfavorable outcomes because of police commissioners named by mayors for political reasons rather than skill and experience.
It all comes down to best-qualified. That can't be purely a judgment call based on a particular mayor's opinion. The civil service process is clearly the best alternative, since it ensures that objective standards factor into the final decision. The sooner Pittsfield's top two public safety positions are subjected to those standards, the better for the city's citizens.
Clarence Fanto can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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