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Peabody council votes in favor of removing police and fire chief jobs from civil service jurisdiction

Posted by Terri Ogan  March 29, 2013 11:45 AM

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After about an hour of debate, the Peabody City Council voted 8-1 in favor of the mayor’s motion to remove both the police and fire chief’s jobs from the civil service jurisdiction.

This vote comes at a crucial time as longtime Police Chief Robert Champagne is due to retire around June 1. This is the first time in 25 years the city will have a new police chief.

Although the police and fire chief jobs will be removed from civil service jurisdiction, Mayor Edward Bettencourt said that the departments will not be removed as a whole.

“This isn’t an attack on civil service,” said Bettencourt at a City Council meeting Thursday night. “I believe there must be an alternative vehicle that takes into account the applicants’ overall skillset.”

Under the civil service merit system in the state, those that are eligible and applying for police and fire chief positions must pass a competitive exam.

An appointing authority, in this case the mayor, then chooses the top scorer of that exam from a list of other certified applicants, which is provided by the Human Resources Division. The appointment is solely based on exam scores and bypasses other abilities.

The mayor also noted that removing the police and fire chief jobs from civil jurisdiction would give him more flexibility in getting the most qualified person for the job.

“Relying solely on a test score is not enough,” Bettencourt said. “I don’t want to be locked in choosing the top highest scorers under the civil service requirements.”

In addition, the mayor said that removing a police or fire chief from his or her position is difficult to do under civil service. There are only three reasons for doing so, Bettencourt said, which include malfeasance, dishonesty and misconduct.

“It is certainly conceivable that there could be a chief that isn’t exhibiting any of those three traits,” Bettencourt said. “However, is nevertheless failing to do the job. I do not think this would be good for the overall morale of the department.”

Peabody City Councillor Anne Manning-Martin was the only councilor who opposed the motion and said that on the other hand, removing the police and fire chief positions from civil service jurisdiction could also have a negative effect on the police department’s morale.

“I don’t think it’s fair and I think it will have a detrimental effect,” Manning-Martin said. “It could take away promotional opportunities from within the department.”

Manning-Martin also said that municipal departments could utilize a free assessment center under civil service to help choose a candidate for the job.

If removed from the civil service jurisdiction the individual applicant would have to pay a $250 fee to use an outside vender for assessment.

Money is also a concern, Mannin-Martin said.

“I don’t feel like the mayor gave a compelling reason to change the way we were doing things when everything he was looking for was already available to him in the civil service process that we have,” Manning-Martin said. “We don’t have any indication of what the cost is going to be to the city with respect to this new process. And I believe it will be costly, but I haven’t been given any number.”

Councilor at Large Dave Gravel said that he supports the mayor as long as there is a fair and measurable hiring plan in the works.

“What I want to see is that there be some criteria established, which he indicated that he is going to provide,” Gravel said. “I just want it to be, whatever it is, that it be fair for all employees so that everybody has an opportunity to apply.”

Bettencourt said that at the moment he has no criteria for how he will appoint the next chief because he “didn’t want to be presumptuous” prior to the council’s vote, but intends on presenting ideas in a future meeting.

Gravel said that he expects to see a plan within the next 30 days.

The City Council’s vote was solely a formality on the issue, but the mayor’s proposed request must now be approved by the state.

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