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.