'Second chances': Mayor Tyer aims to appoint firefighter with criminal past

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Photo Gallery | Conyers hire defended by Mayor Tyer

PITTSFIELD — Mayor Linda M. Tyer said Tuesday that she will appoint a new city firefighter despite objections from firefighter union members over the appointee's drug-related criminal record.

Tyer said she also hopes to counter some negative commentary swirling around the pending appointment of Frederick Conyers Jr., most of which she said was inaccurate.

"This is about correcting the record and getting the facts straight," she said.

Meeting with the media, along with Conyers and Fire Chief Robert Czerwinski, Tyer said Tuesday morning she will appoint Conyers, along with four other new firefighters, and will send their names to the City Council on Sept. 13.

Conyers answered questions about his past growing up in Pittsfield, then attending college and becoming a standout athlete before his arrest. He said he has been working since his release from prison to prove he has changed his life, and now hopes to fulfill a dream of joining the fire department, which dates to his early childhood in Pittsfield when three close friends died in a house fire.

"I was supposed to sleep over that night," he said of the 1991 fire, adding that he has since had great respect for firefighters and always had it in his mind he would like to apply to become one.

"I want to reiterate how important it is to me that we support one of our own," Tyer said during the conference, after she said Conyers had worked hard to turn his life around.

She said his life story "illustrates what we mean when we say we believe in second chances," adding, "I am hopeful this community will embrace this candidate. I have a great confidence in the people of our city, that their hearts and minds will be won over."

But a majority of members of the city firefighters union, Local 2647 of the International Association of Firefighters, are opposed to the appointment, according to an email sent to Tyer and council members by Local 2647 President Robert Leary.

"Firefighters Local 2647 regrets that this letter has become necessary," the letter states in part. "Internal discussions of the past two months have led the majority membership to believe this hiring puts its members and the city at risk."

The statement adds: "The candidate's past makes him ineligible for a position in the Sheriff's [Office] or in the Pittsfield Police Department. We believe his past is grounds for [Civil Service appointment] bypass, as past hiring practices have had candidates bypassed for much lesser histories. ... We support anyone who has changed their lives for the good, but we believe this fire department is an inappropriate avenue or tool to promote the rehabilitation of this one candidate. Keeping out of the courts is not the same as changing your life."

But Tyer and Czerwinski said Conyers was selected in part because "he is at the top" of the current [Civil Service test] list, and he was vetted further through a multiple-part department interview process. "Fred excelled at that process," she said.

In addition, Tyer said a rumor that anyone convicted of a felony could not qualify for the Civil Service position is false — a person can apply to take the test five years after serving their time.

Addressing another comment she has heard, Tyer said "no one was bypassed" on the Civil Service list in order to appoint Conyers.

The mayor said she intends to request a meeting with Leary to discuss the concerns of firefighters opposed to Conyers' appointment.

Reached later Tuesday, Leary said the membership majority-endorsed letter was submitted in advance of the mayor's press conference and was meant to express the concerns expressed to him by a majority of union members prior to the council meeting.

He added that, considering the mayor's comment that the council vote is only a formality, "I know where this is going, so I hope that it all works out and he proves himself and becomes an excellent firefighter in the future."

Czerwinski said at the press conference he wanted to note that "we do have officers in the department that support [Conyers]."

In truth, the chief said, "not everybody in the fire department loves everyone else," but he said firefighters nevertheless learn to work as a team. After he is appointed, Conyers will have to go through five weeks of basic training and then serve under a probationary firefighter status for one year, Czerwinski said.

"Over time, they [firefighters] will accept him, if he can prove himself," the chief said.

The candidate, who talked about his arrest in 2003 with cocaine and a firearm, which led to 31/2 years in state prison, said of the expressed opposition, "I understand it ... I don't want them to just give me some respect; I want to earn that."

Conyers, 35, said that having to leave his young daughter behind when he was sent to prison convinced him he had to begin to change his life.

He said he and his wife of 20 years now have three children and he is "very much involved in my kids' lives." That includes volunteering as a coach, he said, currently for his son's youth football league.

He said that after his prison term, he worked in a six-month work release program in the Boston area with Home Depot, which afterward led to his working at Home Depot in the Berkshires. That was followed by a job at Unistress, he said, and for the past seven years as a painter with Gentleman Painting Co. of Pittsfield.

Conyers said the company has done many jobs in schools, especially in the Springfield area, and later painted at the Statehouse in Boston, all of which required a CORI criminal background check for employees. Finally, painting in the office of several top state officials and that of former Gov. Deval Patrick convinced him that he was ready to try to become a firefighter.

He said he purposely did not apply for the firefighter Civil Service exam until he had "put some more work time under my belt," and could "show people this is who I am today."

Having attended Morningside Community School and Herberg Middle School, Conyers said he graduated from Taconic High School, where he excelled at basketball, and then went to the University of Massachusetts at Boston. He said he got "into some financial difficulties," and after he returned to Pittsfield, "that is when the trouble started."

Conyers said he was never part of a gang but became involved with drugs for financial gain. He said that in 2003 he was playing basketball at Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts and had an opportunity to play basketball in Europe when he was arrested with cocaine and a firearm.

Before his arrest, Conyers said he was focused on his basketball career, which was going well, but afterward he saw that in order to pursue becoming a firefighter he would have to prove himself in the workplace and in his personal life.

Supporters of Conyers are expected to attend the City Council meeting on Sept. 13 to speak on his behalf. The council will vote on the appointment, but Tyer noted that it will be a formality as the mayor has the authority to make such appointments.

Ultimately, she said, it is the Civil Service process that governs the selection process. For instance, she said, a candidate at the top of the testing list could appeal the decision to the Civil Service Commission if not chosen.

Tyer said she has briefed each councilor on the reasons for her decision.

Contact Jim Therrien at 413-496-6247.


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