Civil service for city employees

By Steven R. Maher

The proposal to remove Civil Service protection from the police chief, fire chief, and their deputy chiefs was hailed by the mainstream media as a progressive advance. But in reality, it’s a textbook example of a power grab.

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 qualifications, 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, a “departmental promotional exam” is held in which candidates from within the department test for the position. A list of the top three scorers is then forwarded to the City Manager for a choice.

Worcester does not have to appoint from within. It can open up the process to outside applicants.
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. As the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court put it: “Civil service laws were enacted to free public servants from political pressure and arbitrary separation from the public service, but not to prevent removal of those who have proven to be incompetent or unworthy to continue in the public service.”
Civil Service Commission decisions are subject to judicial review. In a number of cases, state courts have reversed Civil Service Commission decisions in which municipalities properly disciplined their employees.

Hoover episode
City Manager Thomas V. Hoover’s ouster took place in private. If Hoover had been a Civil Service employee, he would have been entitled to know and respond to the charges against him. If Hoover was discharged for political reasons, the Civil Service Commission could have ordered him reinstated.

It is also unlikely that Michael V. O’Brien would have been appointed City Manager in a Civil Service system. A March 29, 2004 Worcester Telegram profile stated that O’Brien was 38 years old, studied landscape architecture, did not list a graduate degree, and his municipal experience consisted of being a project manager for OPCD and then Parks Commissioner. In a Civil Service position requiring a master’s degree, prior City Manager experience, and a fairly administered exam, O’Brien wouldn’t have stood much chance.

Two reasons have been given for the Civil Service change. One is the controversy surrounding Police Chief Gerald J. Vizzo. This is the textbook approach to attack Civil Service: say the exception is the rule. The fact that since the inception of Civil Service Worcester has had hundreds of police and fire department personnel success stories is not the example cited. It’s the occasional lapse in the system that’s highlighted.

The second reason, given by proponents to the Worcester Telegram, is that “the City Manager can assemble a management team that better reflects his public safety goals and administrative philosophies.” It’s likely that a fire or police chief with twenty years experience would be more knowledgeable about achievable public safety goals than an inexperienced 38 year old City Manager with no formal education in law enforcement or fire safety. Under the current system an experienced police chief, who takes a principled stand in defense of public safety against an inexperienced City Manager being manipulated by power seeking politicians, has the right of appeal to the Civil Service Commission.

Removing Civil Service protection is about control, not competency. It’s a power grab by politicians wanting to control the police and fire departments. In the current circumstances, with an inexperienced City Manager, the stage is being set for a disaster.