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.