By Steven R. Maher
The question of civil service protection for local police departments has emerged as a sleeper issue in the state senate race between Douglas A. Belanger and Michael O. Moore. Belanger in 2004 proposed removing civil service protection for the Leicester police chief. Moore is a steadfast supporter of civil service.
Removing civil protection requires a charter change, or home rule petition to the state legislature. Generally, the legislature does not approve home rule petitions if they are opposed by the local state representative or state senator. If elected, Belanger or Moore would be in a position to kill any proposal to remove civil service in their districts by home rule petition.
Corrupt political machines
Civil Service originated in the late 19th century, when corrupt political machines packed city governments with unqualified cronies. Civil Service evolved to ensure that public office holders were appointed based on merit, not political connections.
The Massachusetts Civil Service System is overseen by a five member Civil Service Commission. Generally, when Worcester fills the police or fire chief positions, an exam is held in which candidates test for the position. A list of the top three scorers is then forwarded to the City Manager for a choice.
Civil Service also protects against unjust dismissals. Discharging a civil service employee requires a hearing where the employee can answer any charges. The employee must be given several days written notice of the hearing, which must detail the reasons for the discharge. The employee can be represented at the hearing by an attorney, and must be given a written decision. The employee can appeal an adverse decision to the Civil Service Commission, which can overrule the appointing authority and reinstate the employee. The commission can only reinstate an employee who is the victim of political or biased decision making, or inequitable treatment.
It is this provision against unjust dismissals that law enforcement in particular prizes. Sometimes cops have to arrest a politically well connected citizen. In May 1999 Auburn police served a temporary restraining order against a Selectman accused of spousal abuse. If that Selectman had attempted to retaliate against the policemen involved, the civil service commission would have reversed the retaliatory disciplinary action.
In 2004 Worcester City Manager Michael V. O’Brien advocated removing civil service protection from the police chief, fire chief, and their deputy chiefs. The unsuccessful proposal, which was opposed by some union members, was endorsed by the Worcester Telegram and Worcester Magazine, but denounced in the pages of the InCity Times. In 2005 the Worcester Research Bureau again advocated revoking civil service in Worcester.
Given this history, both candidates were read the following question: “Let’s say you were elected State Senator. If a City Council or Town Meeting within your district asked you to remove civil service protection from a local police department, and that removal was opposed by the local police union, what would you do?”
“I would ask why the change,” answered Moore. “I support civil service. It helps to alleviate patronage and fear of repercussions [by police enforcing the law].”
In 2004 Belanger proposed asking voters to remove civil service protection from the vacant Leicester police chief’s position after several years of being unable to fill the position. Belanger had opposed such a change the previous fall.
“I was adamantly opposed to the idea because I like the system,” Belanger was quoted in the February 11, 2004 Worcester Telegram. “But the system was broken and I have an obligation to fix, whenever possible, something that doesn’t work. I bring this up reluctantly, but civil service is not serving us when it comes to getting a chief. We’re between a rock and a hard place.”
Leicester voters overwhelmingly rejected removing civil service from the police chief’s position in April 2004. Eventually, the town did find a police chief.
“There’s a place for civil service,” Belanger told the InCity Times. He too would ask why such a change was necessary, and volunteered that civil service did protect law enforcement from political retaliation.