Photo: Fire Headquarters on Trapelo Road.
Belmont missed out on a number of outstanding candidates to be its next fire chief after the state’s fire fighters union sent a “threatening letter” to its membership in the fall, according to town and elected officials.
The allegation of outside interference was revealed at the end of Wednesday Jan 20 Warrant Committee meeting as the group discussed the nationwide selection process to find the replacement for David Frizzell as chief of the department.
“There was a letter that was sent by the state fire union discouraging applicants” to apply in Belmont, said Town Administrator Patrice Garvin referring to the Professional Fire Fighters of Massachusetts. Select Board Chair Roy Epstein said the letter’s ‘threatening tone” caused several applicants to withdrew their resumes while others simply did not submit applications.
“There were people who dropped out because of it,” said Garvin.
But the approach by the PFFM of “warning” possible applicants from applying for leadership positions was not used to single out Belmont. In fact, the state union uses its muscle to secure the selection of a specific type of candidate into the job.
And the union would have been interested in Belmont’s search. Discussing the selection process, Daniel Halston, a member of the Warrant Committee and Fire Chief Screening Committee, said 21 applicants responded to the initial job notice: 8 from Massachusetts, 2 from Rhode Island and 10 from states across the US.
All then proceeded to an assessment center where each was graded on five “exercises” – role playing with different sets of real life scenarios – over three days. The Screening Committee, working hand-in-hand with a consulting firm who led most of the process including setting up the assessment center, then interviewed each applicant who also submitted an essay.
“It was extremely rigorous process for the candidates,” said Roy Epstein, chair of the Select Board which will choose the next fire chief. “And I can say that the three survivors are all extremely qualified candidates.”
When Christine Doyle, the Warrant Committee’s vice chair, asked about the track record of the consulting firm in forwarding candidates with diverse backgrounds, Halston said he was told not many females or minority applicants apply for the Belmont job “and that’s unfortunately somewhat consistent with what they’ve seen in other [situations].”
The three finalists – Belmont acting Fire Chief Wayne Haley, Waterbury Conn. Battalion Chief James Peplau and North Providence RI Battalion Chief David DeStefano – are white males.
Elizabeth Dionne brought up the issue of doing away with Belmont’s civil service requirements – which the town broached in the fall only to retreat due to resident concerns – by doing so would allow the town to “diversify the pool of … women or minorities who can get into fire or police departments to gain that experience” to gain the opportunity to reach elite positions.
It was here that Garvin revealed the letter from the PFFM, noting that she didn’t know the full extent of it on the candidates who though of applying.
“But a letter did go out and it was sent out widely to [local] fire unions across the state,” she said, acknowledging that once the letter was issued, some strong candidates dropped out of the process.
Asking what promoted the letter in the first place, Garvin said the union sought by keeping away strong applicants to give any internal candidate a significant advantage in the selection process.
And the PFFM – which is considered one of the most active and effective public service unions in the state – doesn’t try to hide its intentions.
In its notice (which can be found on the union’s Facebook page), the PFFM says it believes “there are worthy and qualified candidates within the Belmont Fire Department who could fill this vacancy.” And to secure that outcome, “we ask the PFFM members … refrain from applying for his position in Belmont.”
The PFFM sent a similar letter in October concerning the chief’s opening in Haverhill and a letter calling for a protest at Lowell City Hall in August when the mayor selected an outside candidate for the Fire Chief’s post.
Once hearing the letters resulting impact on the process surprised and worried several members of the committee.
While both Halston – who helped whittle the candidates down to three finalists – and Epstein – who will possible select the new chief at Thursday’s Select Board meeting – said they were never threatened by the letter, they believe the letter was threatening to its own members, resulting in a reduced pool of applicants and depriving the town of a true choice.
Joe B says
Thank God someone gets it. Arnold you are. Ma fire codes are completely different along with ambulance service. this candidate they picked has no experience working in Ma. No experience in managing a budget and is not even a resident of the state. Big safety issue for the towns people and the employees. Not to mention an individual who is going to put a hit to the Ma Pension system while collecting from Rhode Islands
Mike K. says
Jon, if you haven’t defined the selection of the next fire chief as discrimination, then you aren’t paying attention. Belmont has invited a SHIFT COMMANDER from another state to fill the permanent position of fire chief in our town. How many years of Chief Haley’s career were spent in the position of shift commander? How many years ago did he leave that position for a promotion to assistant fire chief before he transitioned to his current role of acting chief? How poor of a performance would Chief Haley have had to put forth to make a shift commander from out of state a more qualified candidate? How would a shift commander from out of state meet the posted job requirements?
I reread the letter written by the union before writing this response. I continue to see a union protecting a promotional process, not a threat to anyone’s well-being. If you (or any of those responsible for this selection) feel safer with an underqualified candidate, who is unfamiliar with both our town and our state, than you would with an established member of the Belmont Fire Department with the required experience, I’d love to hear your rationale. Personally, I’m unable to see past the lazy efforts to qualify the chosen candidate. Does our Select Board know what a battalion chief is? They publicly deliberated without defining a reason for their choice. It appears to me that conflict between town officials and the union led to the screamingly obvious discrimination against the most qualified candidate with no regard to how residents will be affected. We didn’t win, Jon.
The firefighters union interfering in a town finding the best person for a critical public safety role is a step too far. We should intentionally hire an out of state person just to show the union we won’t be bullied by them and that in the future this kind of old school two bit Jimmy Hoffa crap is just going to backfire. They are putting their corrupt cronyism over our town’s safety.
Arnold B says
Jon- Just so you are aware, the person they selected has NEVER run a fire department. He has also never guided the town through a pandemic, but the internal applicant has. He has never stepped foot in our town. He would have to put whatever street you live on in his GPS to find it. Think about that. It was about the most qualified candidate whose been a member of management with the fire department for the last 4 years. Clearly they didn’t choose the right person. This has nothing to do with Union tactics and has everything to do with the fact public safety took a big hit in the Town of Homes. It does seem obvious, however, from your comment that the select board did do this for retribution to the union at the expense of your safety and the safety of the residents of Belmont.
If the best candidate were so obvious why resort to bully tactics? They could’ve made their case in a letter of support, not threats. If their reasons for support were as forced and strained as yours, I’m not surprised they thought threats were a better option. I hope the firefighters are ashamed of their union. If they are not I’ve lost respect for them.
Arnold B says
Jon , Come on . you cannot be that blind , I myself cannot even believe your comments at this point . Union Tactics had nothing to do with this . It’s the town’s hatred for the Fire Union and since your town administrator isn’t from anywhere close to Belmont either , I hope you feel as though your tax dollars are well spent by hiring a fire chief who has no idea where Trapelo Road is . It’s not bullying, it’s all about safety . Jon , Our tax dollars pay salaries of people who make decisions on public safety that don’t even live here . Stop being so blind to the real agenda here .
Arnold B says
Jon , I would just like to clarify my comment . It is not the towns hatred for the fire union as they have been overwhelmingly supportive. It’s the Selectmen and the administrator.