Select Board Withdraws Civil Service Article Due To ‘Technical Error’; Others See Folding A Losing Position

Photo: Roy Epstein, Chair of the Select Board

In a surprise that no one saw coming, the Belmont Select Board voted unanimously to withdraw its controversial article removing civil service for Belmont’s Police and Fire departments mere minutes before it was to be presented before a contentious Special Town Meeting on Wednesday, Sept. 23.

Roy Epstein, Select Board chair, told the members the reason for the removal of the article was due to a “technical error” involving rank and file members taking civil service tests for promotions in the coming months.

“I think this sort of last minute change is one that forces our hand in this case. And I would say a postponement at this stage is certainly the prudent approach,” said Tom Caputo of the Select Board.

Because the article was never read into the warrant, there would be no debate and discussion by the Town Meeting members so Town Moderator Mike Widmer quickly dissolved the assembly as the article was the final item on the warrant.

The withdrawal of Article 10 removed what many predicted to be a heated debate on the future of civil service in Belmont.

Supporters of ending civil service, which included town officials, Select Board and the leaders of both fire and police, contend the town would see significant cost savings by ending a 105-year-old arcane system for hiring and promotions, replacing it with an efficiently run locally-focused practice.

Opponents made up of the rank and file of Belmont Fire and Police and resident supporters ask why throw out the baby with the bathwater as changes to civil service – such as altering age limits and increasing diversity in the number of candidates – can be made by changes to the existing language of the agreement. Several Town Meeting Members also questioned the validity of the supposed financial savings with such a move.

Paul Roberts (Pct. 8), a vocal critic of the town’s and Select Board’s tactics said Wednesday night’s board vote had more to do with folding from a losing position.

“My belief is that [the Select Board] did some hasty vote counting  and decided to turn back and live to fight another day. Overall, I think it reflects a haphazard effort all around on Article 10,” he said.

During a meeting of the Select Board that occurred during a break after the Special Town Meeting approved Article 9, Epstein said the board was informed late in the afternoon that Article 10 included a “drafting error” which involved setting the effect date of March 1, 2021 to end civil service protection. It was also assumed this date would protect the interests of police and fire department personnel who were taking civil service promotional exams this fall.

“And we wanted them to have full civil service protection in their new position. And that was always our intent,” said Epstein.

But when the article was reviewed, it was determined that March 1 “was not sufficient,” said Epstein. Because the results of the civil service exams could take longer than previously thought, the board was advised that July 1, 2021 was a more appropriate date to protect any future promotions.

“The idea was not to cause a problem for anyone or to be unfair to anyone who was studying for an exam and then pull the rug from under them by yanking civil service before they had a chance to actually take the test and get the results,” said the Select Board’s Adam Dash.

With the new effective date for leaving civil service being pushed back well passed the scheduled date for the annual Town Meeting in early May 2021, the board decided to allow the members to vote on the article in the coming year.

“Patrice [Garvin, the town administrator] and I recognized if it’s going to be as late as July 1, 2021, we may as well withdraw this article tonight and then we’ll see where we’re at in the spring regarding civil service,” said Epstein.

“We don’t want to do something that did not reflect our true intention. And at this late date there was no cure that other than to withdraw the article,” he said.

Roberts provided his own advice to the those supporting the end of Civil Service in Belmont.

“It is my hope that the Select Board use this extra time to properly study the issue, learn from the experience of other communities and – if they intend to bring this forward again – do so with a plan that addresses the issues raised by our public safety professionals and Town Meeting members. A Town Meeting vote should be the last step in the process, not the first,” said Roberts.

Town Meeting: Limits Placed On Civil Service Debate; Clarifying Amendment Added To Civil Service Article; 9 PM’s The Limit

Photo: Mike Widmer

Due to what nearly everyone at the Special Town Meeting expects to be one of the most contentious articles for many years, Town Moderator Mike Widmer this afternoon, Wednesday, Sept. 23, has placed a limit on the scope of debate on Article 10, the measure which would end civil service for rank and file Belmont Fire and Police personnel.

Here is Widmer’s announcement: 

One of the most important responsibilities of the Moderator is to determine the scope of permissible discussion under any article. In the vast majority of articles that determination is straightforward. But in a minority of instances, often the most controversial issues, it takes considerable research and consultation to determine the approach that is in the best interests of Town Meeting.

In terms of Article 10, I have probably spent more hours considering proper scope than I have with any other article in my 12 years as Moderator. As part of this process I have had extensive discussions with Town Counsel George Hall.

My conclusion is that the only correct and fair way to proceed with Article 10 is to limit discussion purely to the merits of the proposal advanced by the Select Board:

Should the Belmont police and fire departments be withdrawn from Civil Service? Only the merits of this policy proposal are the province of Town Meeting.

The process by which the Select Board decided to bring this article forth is not an appropriate matter for debate. Much of the public discussion, certainly brought forth by the unions, is that the Board should have negotiated with the unions before bringing this issue to Town Meeting. But how are Town Meeting Members to know the unbiased facts of what happened at the negotiating table since those are legally mandated to be private matters? Process issues between union and management are inextricably tied to collective bargaining which definitely is not the province of Town Meeting.

Our role as a legislative body is to debate issues advanced by the executive branch or by citizens’ petitions. We have no authority to insert ourselves into the collective bargaining process. Those questions are clearly out of scope of the article as well.

This reality may be frustrating to individual Town Meeting Members, and Members are free to vote yes or no based on whatever factors they choose. But I am sure you all agree that we should not break longstanding and bedrock principles of the separation of powers.

Mr. Widmer can be reached at mike.j.widmer@gmail.com

A clarifying amendment for Article 10

Roy Epstein, Chair of the Select Board and Precinct 6 Town Meeting Member has moved to amend the main motion under Article 10 by adding to the end of the motion the following clause: “,said revocation not to take effect until March 1, 2021.”

The resultant motion will now read: 

Motion: That the Town remove the Police and Fire Department from the provisions of the Civil Service Laws, and the rules and regulations relating to the same, by revoking the Town’s acceptance of Section 37 of Chapter 19 of the General Laws voted under Article 15 of the Warrant for the 1915 Annual Town Meeting and of Section 48 of Chapter 31 (as both have been recodified in G.L. c. 31, § 52), said revocation not to take effect until March 1, 2021.

The rationale for the clarifying amendment is to correct a drafting error in the motion. The intent of the motion is to allow anyone promoted, as a result of taking a civil service exam in 2020, to remain grandfathered in civil service after their promotion.

A Town Meeting session too long? Pumpkin time is 9 p.m. Wednesday

Town Moderator Mike Widmer will be keeping a watch on the clock on the wall at Wednesday’s Special Town Meeting:

On a related matter, some Town Meeting Members have expressed a concern that the meeting went too long on Monday night. I do want to emphasize to Town Meeting Members that we time every speaker; presenters have specifically assigned time limits. Town Meeting Members have three minutes as their limit. Tonight we have two important matters to discuss and I want to allow for a full discussion of Civil Service. If we are able to complete action on Article 9 by 9 p.m, I think it makes sense to proceed to Article 10. However, if it is after 9, I will ask for a vote of Town Meeting Members whether we continue with Article 10 or whether we adjourn to Sept. 30.

Three Public Meetings To Discuss Civil Service, McLean Rezoning, Special Town Meeting Articles

Photo: Special Town Meeting Public Meetings

The Select Board has authorized at its meeting on Monday, Aug. 31 the remote Special Town Meeting for up to three nights this month:

  • Monday, Sept. 21
  • Wednesday, Sept. 23
  • Wednesday, Sept. 30

Town Moderator Mike Widmer has asked that all Town Meeting Members make time to participate in the topical meetings or watch the recordings before Town Meeting begins so that all can start on the same baseline of information.  

  • Tuesday, Sept. 8: McLean Zoning By-law,  hosted by the Planning Board Chair Steve Pinkerton
  • Wednesday, Sept. 9: Removal of Police and Fire personnel from Civil Service, hosted by the Town Administrator Patrice Garvin and Select Board Chair Roy Epstein
  • Thursday, Sept. 10: League of Women Voters Warrant Briefing hosted by Laurie Slap, Chair of Warrant Committee

Below is additional information including meeting access information. 

Amend Zoning Bylaw: McLean District Zone 3 Overlay

The McLean Zone 3 Overlay zoning article relates to a residential housing development proposed for in the area of McLean Hospital. Details on the proposed project can be found here

https://www.belmont-ma.gov/planning-board/pages/proposed-mclean-zone-3-overlay-district

The article amends zoning originally adopted in 1999 for a project that was never built. After much negotiation between the town and the current developer, the proposed zoning amendment allows 40 age-restricted (55 years of age or older) townhouses and 110 apartments (57 age-restricted apartments and 53 non-age restricted apartments). The townhouses will be 2.5 stories with one to four units per building. 15 percent of the townhouses (six units) will be set aside for affordable housing. The apartments will be contained in two buildings with a garage and four residential floors above. The apartment layouts include studios, one-, two-, and three-bedroom units. 25 percent of the apartments (28 apartments) will be set aside for affordable housing. Permitting for this development will be through the Planning Board under Design and Site Plan Review. 

Webinar ID: 820 1129 4827

Please click the link below to join the webinar:
https://us02web.zoom.us/j/82011294827

To join by telephone, 
Call: 1 (929) 205 6099 
When prompted, enter:  820 1129 4827 # 
When prompted, enter # 
To ask a question or raise your hand, enter *9 on your phone. 

If you are just interested in following along, watch on Belmont Media Center.
Channel 8 on Comcast
Channels 28 or 2130 on Verizon
Watch online at > belmontmedia.org/watch/govtv

Removal from Civil Service: Police and Fire

This article seeks the approval of Town Meeting to remove all uniformed Police and Fire Department personnel from the provisions of the Civil Service laws, which removal would become part of a negotiated agreement between the Town of Belmont and the Belmont Fire Fighters Local 1637, Belmont Patrolmen’s Association and Belmont’s Police Superiors Officers Associations.  Civil Service was adopted in Belmont for Police and Fire in 1915, before the existence of collective bargaining agreements.  The Select Board believes the interests of the town employees and the Town would be better served in the modern era by withdrawing from Civil Service.

Webinar ID:  815 5872 3892

Please click the link below to join the webinar:
https://us02web.zoom.us/j/81558723892

To join by telephone, 
Call:  1 (929) 205 6099 
When prompted, enter:  815 5872 3892 # 
When prompted, enter # 
To ask a question or raise your hand, enter *9 on your phone. 

If you are just interested in following along, watch on Belmont Media Center.
Channel 8 on Comcast
Channels 28 or 2130 on Verizon
Watch online at > belmontmedia.org/watch/govtv

League of Women Voters Warrant Briefing

This will review all other Warrant Articles that will be sent to Town Meeting Members once the Warrant has been finalized. 

Webinar ID: 839 3666 6891

Please click the link below to join the webinar:
https://us02web.zoom.us/j/83936666891

To join by telephone, 
Call:  1 (929) 205 6099 
When prompted, enter:  839 3666 6891 # 
When prompted, enter # 
To ask a question or raise your hand, enter *9 on your phone. 

If you are just interested in following along, watch on Belmont Media Center.
Channel 8 on Comcast
Channels 28 or 2130 on Verizon
Watch online at > belmontmedia.org/watch/govtv

Special Town Meeting Likely To Take Up Ending Civil Service For Police, Fire; Trailers Staying On Woodland

Photo: The civil service in Massachusetts

Those hoping Belmont’s Special Town Meeting to be held on the last full day of summer (Sept. 21) would “be so easy” with a few procedural articles that would get passed without much trouble can put those dreams away as it appears there’s likely to be a “knockout drag out” over the future of a long-standing labor hiring practice in town.

Among the draft proposals for the Town Meeting, Town Administrator Patrice Garvin announced that Article 10 would put an end to civil service in the Belmont Police and Fire departments. (The warrant will be finalized on Aug. 31.)

“This has been talked about for some time since I’ve been here, and we felt this was a good time to bring this forward given the financial climate and some of the social climate that’s going around town,” said Garvin, at the end of another marathon Select Board meeting on Monday, Aug. 24.

A public meeting on the article will be held on Sept. 9, said Garvin, whose office will manage the meeting.

Garvin has sent notices out to all union presidents that the town will bargain “in good faith” under the state’s collective bargaining law.

But in a twist to the bargaining process, the board and Garvin will go first to Town Meeting “to see if [it] is interested in removing it and then go to the bargaining table” as opposed to a more traditional negotiating away civil service first and then seek Town Meeting’s approval.

The civil service system in Massachusetts was created in an attempt to end the corruption, patronage, and cronyism that dominated all types of government in the late 1800s when it was who you knew not your qualifications that determined who was hired for a government position. Critics say the civil service laws represent a significant barrier to efficient government operation while its defenders contend it has taken the politics out of municipal jobs especially for the police and fire departments.

While the overwhelming number of Massachusetts cities and towns adhere to civil service rules, Burlington, Lexington, Reading, Wayland, Wellesley and Westwood are some of the nearly 30 municipalities which are not covered by civil service.

While there haven’t been any recent attempts to revoke civil service in town, the topic has been raised periodically by previous town administrations and Select Boards. It resurfaced in the past year specifically during the hiring process of the new police chief and during the current search for a fire chief.

During his public interview for the job, James MacIsaac, Belmont’s current police head, was emphatic that civil service should be taken off the table, saying it would prevent him from hiring qualified residents from a larger pool of candidates and limit placing people of color onto the force as he is required to take the first name off a list of test-takers presented to him by the civil service board.

The members of the current Select Board have in the past expressed qualified support to bring a measure before the town’s legislative body for a vote and did so on Monday.

“A lot of people have been telling us to do more structural change so there you go,” said Adam Dash, a member of the board.

“The people most directly involved with it, namely the police and fire chiefs think this is a very desirable thing to do,” said Roy Epstein, chair of the Select Board.

But the defenders of civil service are beginning to rally their supporters. At nearly the same time Garvin presented the article at 10:40 p.m., firefighter’s local union 1637 was on social media with a notice whose headline screamed: “Protect The Public From Politics!”

“The rank and file members of the Police and Fire departments feel this is not something that would benefit the town in any manner,” read the email pamphlet.

And the town certainly realize they will have a fight on its hands.

“I definitely think we’ll get some push back [from the unions],” said Garvin. But it is worth exploring especially if the outcome of a yes vote are departments with greater diversity and in future years a larger pool of employees of color in senior positions, she noted.

While this Special Town Meeting warrant is filled with articles that were not taken up during the annual Town Meeting in June, there is one which could prove to be just as contentious. The board will likely approve an article to purchase the two trailers the police department has been using as its temporary headquarters for the past year on Woodland Street.

With its single floor open-design plan, the 5,000 square-foot modular trailers have been a hit with the police – early in the year one senior officer said the department would have been happy to have them set up as its permanent headquarters – the town is viewing the modulars as a solution for the threadbare condition of the nearby Water Department.

“The trailer are in really good condition, we can utilize some offices down there,” said Garvin. “It’s an opportunity for the town to acquire an asset and for the Water Department to use it.”

With potential savings by not making payments and eliminating the moving and disassemble fee, “there’s a high upside for keeping those buildings knowing that there’s a space crunch [in town departments],” said Jon Marshall, assistant town administrator. “There are some departments in town that are actually renting space … so there’s certainly an opportunity to put people in spaces that makes sense.”

But board members noted that several neighbors along Woodland Road were told the trailers would be temporary as they worried about police traffic at the site.

“I’m not saying I’m opposed to it but I think there will be a lot of push,” said Dash.

Other articles coming before the Special Town Meeting will include:

  • Adopting private street Carleton Circle as a public way.
  • Authorize the Select Board to grant temporary easements for the Wellington Elementary’s “Safe Routes to School” plan.
  • Vote on several Community Preservation Committee projects including $680,000 for Town Field Playground renovation and $100,000 to repair the front steps at the Police Headquarters.
  • Reallocating water and sewer capital balances towards other capital projects.
  • Vote to approve changes to the zoning bylaw to allow for the construction of residential housing in a portion of the McLean Hospital property.