By Steven R. Maher
Civil service laws govern the Worcester police and fire departments when it comes to the hiring and firing of personnel. Recently the Massachusetts Civil Service Commission ruled in Worcester’s favor in two cases that show how well the system works.
Civil service requires police and firefighter applicants to take a competitive written exam. The state then supplies the city a list of aspirants ranked by score results, with favorable preferences for veterans. The city conducts background checks of solicitants before deciding whether to hire the high scoring achievers on the list. Factors other than test results can be taken into consideration.
If a qualified candidate believes he has been passed over in favor of a less eligible hireling, the aggrieved party can appeal the hiring decision to the Civil Service Commission. If the commission believes unfair practices were used, it can take action ensuring the more qualified supplicant eventually gets a job. The system creates a level playing field for all, ranking job seekers using a standardized test. For that reason it is detested by politicians, because it inhibits venal practices like nepotism and patronage.
The Civil Service Commission takes its job seriously. In September 2006 the commission asserted jurisdiction over all fire department hiring in Medford after a more qualified military serviceman was passed over in favor, among others, of the fire chief’s son. The commission used the Medford case to order all cities and towns to follow a state procedure requiring job applicants “to disclose in writing, upon application, the names of all immediate family” members “who serve as employees or elected officials of the city or town for which they are seeking to be employed.”
There were calls to rescind civil service in October 2004 when Worcester Police Chief Gerald J. Vizzo resigned after only ten months in office. Both the Worcester Telegram and Worcester Magazine editorially called for repeal of civil service, arguing that it was an arcane procedure inhibiting effective management. There was a newspaper column that argued at length for repeal of the law. The city’s mayor derided the police command as “dysfunction junction.” Only the InCity Times published a commentary advocating the retention of civil service.
Then what happened? Gary J. Gemme was appointed Chief of Police using civil service procedures. Soon the same editorial writers and columnists who blamed civil service for Vizzo were loudly praising Gemme. It revealed a startling contradiction at the Worcester Telegram. When there’s a controversial appointment like Vizzo, the Telegram denounces civil service as the. When there’s a successful appointment like Gemme, the Telegram does not trumpet the fact that it took place under civil service procedures. And once again, only the InCity Times is pointing out when the system works.
The cases involved two candidates for the police and fire departments. We have decided not use their names in this story; they will be referred to as “the police department applicant” and the “fire department applicant.” We do not want to deter other candidates from utilizing the civil service procedure for fear the media will report their names if they are unsuccessful.
In June 2002 the Worcester Fire Department requested a civil service list “for the selection of 65 permanent full-time firefighters.” The fire department applicant “achieved a score of one hundred (100) on the firefighter’s exam, which was used to generate the above-referenced certification list.” After veterans preferences were factored in, the fire department applicant ranked 15th on the list, a classification which should have ensured him a job.
The fire department decided against hiring him after a background check revealed the following:
● The applicant worked for two and a half years at a nonprofit agency. One of his superiors, asked “whether or not he would rehire or recommend the [applicant] for hire”, said, “probably not.” Asked “if he had any general comments regarding the [applicant]’s application to be a firefighter,” he said, “Right now, I wouldn’t want him to be responding to my house.”
● The applicant testified under oath that prior to working at the nonprofit, he worked for an education “[C]enter from January 1999 to July 1999. He was terminated after performing a prank of changing the names on the office speed dial buttons on the telephone.”
● “Prior to his employment at [the education] Center” the fire department applicant worked at a leasing company “from August 1998 to January 1999 as a parking lot attendant. He was 18 years old at the time.” He “acknowledged that he was not a ‘good fit’ for the parking lot attendant job and agreed to be laid off.”
● The fire department applicant “had also been employed part-time by [another firm] from November 1997 until August 1998. When a new supervisor with ‘control issues’ started, he decided to leave. “
Based on this less than stellar work history, the Worcester Fire Department rejected this man’s candidacy and he appealed to the Civil Service Commission.
“By a preponderance of the evidence, however, the City of Worcester has proven that District Chief Sullivan made the correct decision in not recommending [the applicant] for one of the 65 available firefighter positions in 2002 because of the [applicant]’s poor employment history,” wrote the Civil Service Commission in it’s ruling. “The City bypassed [the applicant] with just cause, providing sound, rationale reasons for its decision and there is no evidence of inappropriate motivations or objectives on the part of the Appointing Authority that would warrant the Commission’s intervention.
The police department applicant “filed an application for employment with the Worcester Police Department on February 9, 2004. The application to the City of Worcester Police Department requires the candidates to provide details concerning any and all applications to other state and federal law enforcement agencies, and, to certify the accuracy of all statements in the application.”
The background check found the following:
● “The [applicant] reported in his application that he had applied to the United States Capitol Police Department, but that he was ‘no longer eligible’ for a position there. The background check by Worcester Police Detective Laura Lalibertie revealed that the Capitol Police had found the [applicant] psychologically unfit for a position on said department.”
● “The [applicant] failed to indicate on his application that he had applied for a position with the United States Secret Service on four (4) occasions, that he had failed their exam on two occasions, and, thus, he was no longer eligible for appointment.”
● “The [applicant] indicated on his application that he had applied for a position with the Federal Bureau of Investigation. He stated that he was ‘no longer eligible’ for appointment to the FBI. The background investigation revealed that the FBI had found the [applicant] ‘non competitive.’”
● “The [applicant]’s current supervisor in the position that he has held for nine (9) years … reported that he is a good employee, but that he sometimes has trouble getting along with co-workers and subordinates. The [applicant] received a couple of written reprimands regarding incidents with other employees, one of whom claimed to have been intimidated by him. The employer noted that the [applicant] lacked certain social skills and threatened to fire fellow employees rather than help them improve their job performance. She also noted that the [applicant] often failed to complete paperwork in a proper manner.”
The Worcester Police Department understandably concluded that this might not be the best person to give a gun to, and send out onto the street to enforce the law. The applicant appealed.
“With the background that has emerged, taken as a whole, the picture is one of a person who chooses to evade the truth when it may be convenient for him,” the Civil Service Commission ruled, backing the city’s decision not to hire the applicant. “His demeanor and attitude of entitlement conveyed during the hearing raised questions concerning his self control and judgment as well as his credibility. The [applicant]’s history reflects failed applications to other law enforcement agencies and episodes of poor relations with co-workers which have resulted in his being reprimanded on at least one job.
“Given that police officers must write factually accurate reports, provide testimony under oath in court, work well with a diverse group of people, complete a vast amount of paperwork in a timely manner, and remain in control of their emotions in even the most trying circumstances, the bases for the Appointing Authority’s bypass do not seem trivial, arbitrary or capricious.”
In these two cases the system worked. Candidates scored high on the civil service exam and were given the chance to compete. But when background checks turned up problems, Worcester rejected their job candidacies, and the Civil Service Commission upheld the city’s rejections.
Sometimes the wrong person gets hired under civil service regulations. No system involving imperfect human beings is perfect. But there are two certainties about the future of civil service in the city of Worcester that it is reasonable, based on past behavior, to venture an opinion on.
First, if a problem arises with a public official appointed under civil service, the Worcester Telegram will loudly trumpet the news, blame civil service, and call for repeal of civil service protection for city employees.
Second, if a success story results when a public official is appointed under civil service laws, the Worcester Telegram will not loudly stress the relation to civil service laws, will not credit civil service, and will not call for retention of civil service protection for city employees.