Mass. FFs' union boycotts chief hiring process, says it's 'ripe for abuse'

Cambridge firefighters said in a letter that they will immediately call for a vote of no confidence once the new fire chief is instated


Amy Saltzman
Wicked Local Metro, Needham, Mass.

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — Members of Cambridge Firefighters Union Local 30 told the city manager they are boycotting the city's selection process for a new fire chief, calling it "wildly subjective" and "ripe for abuse."

In a letter signed by Local 30 President Chris Haynes and 12 of the city's 13 deputy fire chiefs, the union said it will immediately call for a vote of no confidence once the new fire chief is instated. [Scroll to the bottom of this article to read the letter in full.]

Cambridge firefighters say the city's chief selection process is
Cambridge firefighters say the city's chief selection process is "ripe for abuse" and vowed to call for a vote of no confidence once the new chief is instated. (Photo/Cambridge Fire Department)

The city chose to select a fire chief through a Sole Assessment Center, an avenue approved as part of Civil Service. The process calls for the city to select a vendor who then picks assessors to conduct a series of candidate interviews without a written component. The city has final say on which assessors are chosen.

Without an objectively graded written portion of the exam, and with the assessment center based 80% on interviews conducted by interviewers hired by the city, the union feels the process lacks transparency.

"They're probably legally allowed to do this," said John Magee, secretary for Local 30. "But we don't think it's a good way of assessing people and unnecessarily advantages one particular candidate over other candidates. And we think it's ripe for potential abuse or the appearance of political favoritism."

So even though the union has limited legal recourse, its members plan to have a vote of no confidence, which is "not a good look if you're a chief," said Local 30 President Chris Haynes. "It's not what you want on Day 1."

Background

Part of the union's concern is the city's history when it comes to selecting a fire chief.

For the last three years, Gerry Mahoney, a 37-year veteran of Cambridge Fire Department, has served as interim fire chief. City Manager Louis DePasquale appointed Mahoney back in March 2017 after former Chief Gerry Reardon retired upon his 65th birthday, as required by Civil Service.

Reardon's appointment in 2000 was challenged by a fellow candidate, then-Deputy Chief Frank Murphy, who tested the highest during the Civil Service fire chief exam yet did not get the position, according to Magee and Haynes. Civil Service requires municipalities to chose one of the top three scoring candidates. Reardon was initially fourth, until one candidate suddenly dropped out and Reardon placed third, the union said.

After the city brought in a vendor for the interview process, Reardon was chosen as fire chief.

There was a question of nepotism, with Murphy appealing to Civil Service, said Magee and Haynes. Ultimately Civil Service said the city was in its legal right to choose Reardon since he was technically in the top three, the union said.

Fast forward to 2017, the city knows Reardon will turn 65 years old and must retire, yet the city doesn't opt into any of the annual Civil Service fire chief exams leading up to his departure. The exam's results remain valid for three years, which means the city could have had a list of potential candidates ahead of Reardon's retirement, the union said.

"If you wait until the 2017 test you automatically have to name an acting chief," said Magee. "The city chose not to participate in any of those [fire chief] exams, which would have been the normal course of events, and therefore necessitated them to name an acting chief. How convenient. In our view, there's a reasonable suspicion that there's a gaming to the system."

Civil Service didn't offer another fire chief exam after May 2016, leaving Mahoney in the interim position. After four years, however, Civil Service is offering a fire chief exam Oct. 14, and the union wants the city to opt in.

Personnel director defends process

Sheila Keady Rawson, personnel director for the city of Cambridge, said there was no way for the city to know Civil Service was going to stop the tests back in 2016.

"The last time, I believe, the exam was given was in May 2016," said Keady Rawson. "My understanding is that there was no indication at that time that there wouldn't be future exams."

When asked why the city would even wait that long knowing Reardon would retire when he turned 65, Keady Rawson said it's not uncommon to participate in the most recent exam "to see who's actually interested and in the running." Then-City Manager Richard Rossi didn't call for participating in the exam prior to Reardon's retirement, Keady Rawson said.

Rossi retired in June 2016. DePasquale took over in November 2016 and named Mahoney interim in March 2017.

"I think [DePasquale] thought [Mahoney] was the best person for the job," said Keady Rawson.

As for the union's skepticism over the process back when Reardon was named permanent fire chief in 2000, Keady Rawson said that had nothing to do with DePasquale.

"In fairness to the current city manager, he wasn't involved in any of that," said Keady Rawson. "2000 was 20 years ago and part of what happened then really has no bearing in terms of how we're thinking about it moving forward."

Keady Rawson said the city chose the route of the Sole Assessment Center, versus the fire chief exam which includes a written portion, because officials believe it's the best way to find the appropriate match for the city of Cambridge.

"I would say a written exam is not an indicator of who will be able to actually demonstrate and carry out the functions of the position," she said. "A written exam is something that shows the success of someone who is able to memorize data."

"A Sole Assessment Center done by a vendor can be specific to the city of Cambridge and specific to what a Cambridge fire chief will have to deal with," she continued. "It's a better way to select a department head. And it's real world scenarios, opposed to a multiple choice exam."

But the union disagrees, arguing the city could easily choose assessors who have conflicts of interest.

"Our position isn't that we don't like Gerry Mahoney and we don't think he should be chief," said Haynes. "Our position is all candidates should have a reasonable chance of success. As such there should be some element of objective, written testing that goes into it, and the city should try to ensure there is no appearance of favoritism. And the city has resisted that wildly."

Vice Mayor Alanna Mallon and councilors Marc McGovern and Jivan Sobrinho-Wheeler sponsored a policy order, which will be discussed at the City Council meeting July 27, asking DePasquale to generate a detailed report on the city's reasoning for choosing the Sole Assessment process over the Civil Service exam as well as the costs associated. The results of this report are requested to be completed by the Sept. 14 council meeting.

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©2020 Wicked Local Metro, Needham, Mass.

 

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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