Pittsfield fire chief urges keeping civil service but notes system flaws
PITTSFIELD -- Fire Chief Robert Czerwinski has joined Police Chief Michael Wynn is expressing support for keeping the two city positions within the civil service system.
Czerwinski told a task force reviewing the role of the civil service system in Pittsfield that the protections it provides municipal employees from political influences is essential for the head of a public safety department.
"It is pretty important as we are dealing with public safety," he said. "We elect new mayors, so we are always dealing with a new person."
If a chief can be replaced without cause, Czerwinski said, they can't enact policies for the department and see them through -- "not if he could be replaced next week."
The job, he said, "needs continuity over the long term."
His sentiments were similar to those Wynn expressed when he met with the task force in January. The group, appointed by Mayor Daniel L. Bianchi, also is gathering information from other officials and now plans to issue a recommendation to the mayor by May 1.
Originally, the group was expected to review civil service for other city employees as well, but members agreed by consensus last week to focus only on the two chief positions. Both Wynn and Czerwinski have served in an acting capacity for several years, as they were not appointed permanent chiefs under the civil service system requirements.
Former Mayor James M. Ruberto, who was critical of the system, made the acting appointments. Bianchi, his successor in 2012, left the status quo in effect but promised during a city charter review last year to form the task force to help resolve the situation. He also has been critical of the civil service system, especially for producing too few qualified candidates for job openings through the required testing procedures.
Both Wynn and Czerwinski also said they are routinely the target of joking comments from police or fire officials from other municipalities about their status during conferences. "We're a laughingstock in the state," Czerwinski said.
Two task force members, Police Officer and police union President Jeffrey Coco, and firefighter union President Timothy Bartini reiterated that the status of the chiefs negatively affects morale among rank and file officers and firefighters.
While Czerwinski favored retaining civil service, he found fault with the state agency's slow response times to questions and in average six-month wait for civil service test results, upon which hiring is based within the system.
"It should not take six months," he said of the availability of test results. "It should be done a lot quicker."
Problems involving too few qualified job candidates who've passed the test for a given position are often cited in arguments against retaining civil service.
Czerwinski said city officials should "work collectively at the state level" with organizations like police and fire department associations and the Massachusetts Municipal Association to improve or update civil service and its operations.
The task force also is gathering information about communities that have removed some or all employees from the system, often forming an in-house testing and job candidate or promotion evaluation system to replace it.
Czerwinski and Wynn said that a consideration should be the added cost of bringing testing and evaluations in-house, as Amherst and other communities have done.
As for evaluating candidates for police and fire positions, Czerwinski recommended a combination of civil service testing -- which, like Wynn, he said could be used more effectively to maintain adequate lists of candidates who have passed the test -- and so-called assessment centers.
The latter involves placing a candidate in a realistic job setting and forcing him or her to react to a series of managerial or personnel challenges.
As for the costs, Czerwinski said that under civil service, the person taking the tests pay $250 per test and about $1,500 for the required books. The tests themselves are given by civil service at no charge to the municipality.
Mary McGinnis, the city's director of administrative services, said Monday the next task force meeting will be at 4 p.m. March 27 in City Hall. The group expects to hear from A. Wayne Sampson, retired executive director of the Massachusetts Chief of Police Association.
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