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Quincy ordered to choose fire chief again

Posted by Jessica Bartlett  September 23, 2011 12:41 PM

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The state Civil Service Commission ordered Quincy officials to choose a fire chief again, after the previous selection process was found to be unfairly biased toward Chief Joseph Barron.

In a 60-page ruling released Thursday, the commission ordered that Barron be renamed as acting chief as of Sept. 30.

In addition, the new round of the selection process requires that interviews be conducted by an external and unbiased panel, that candidates give a written description of their qualifications prior to the interview, that the evaluation criteria will be established by an outside firm, and that an interview panel shall render a written report of each candidate.

Mayor Thomas Koch will still be charged with selecting the appropriate applicant.

Although the commission requested that the process begin in October, city officials say they will appeal the ruling.

"There are serious, likely fatal, flaws in the commission’s ruling, and we will be appealing it," mayoral spokesman Christopher Walker said. "We’ve won this case [with the selection of Barron] multiple times in court and we fully expect that when the commission’s ruling reaches court, we will be successful again."

In the decision, Commissioner Paul Stein wrote that Deputy Chief Gary Smyth was passed over for the job of fire chief five times, despite exhibiting extensive qualifications for the job, in favor of Barron, who has numerous ties to Koch.

The controversy started when Koch beat previous Mayor William Phelan in the 2007 election. Koch had received the endorsement of the firefighter’s union Local 792, and had worked with then-Deputy Chief Barron during his election.

According to the report, “Barron was freely critical of the Mayor Phelan, stating that [Phelan] had 'no respect for our [the QFD’s] core mission.’….Deputy Chief Smyth ‘openly and publicly supported’ Mayor Phelan in the 2007 municipal election.”

When Koch won the election and took office in January 2008, he appointed his campaign treasurer, James Fatseas, as chief of staff. According to the report, Koch knew Fatseas and Barron were were lifelong friends.

The position of fire chief opened when Chief Thomas Pettinelli retired due to an off-duty injury. As a result, Deputy Chief Smyth was appointed acting chief in December 2007.

From the January 2008 until July 14, 2008, Smyth ran the department, managing and creating the budget, sitting on Quincy’s Licensing Board, attending Fire Chief Association meetings, and managing staff, a role for which he was highly praised for by Local 792’s president in a letter dated May 2008.

According to the report, Smyth continued successfully in the role – even keeping a much needed rescue unit in service without supplemental funding and renegotiating budget requests with the City Council– until July, when Mayor Koch installed Barron as acting chief.

“Mayor Koch stated that his decision was based exclusively on the fact that he understood the prior practice was to appoint the most senior deputy as 'Acting Chief,' that he had offered the post first to Deputy Chief [Gerald] Galvin, who declined, and Deputy Chief Barron was next in seniority,” the report said.

To become the permanent fire chief, however, one must take an exam. An exam had been requested in January 2008, but had not occurred due to the limited amount of applicants.

In an earlier exam, Smyth was tied for first place with Deputy Chief George McGunagle, followed by Captain Paul Griffin and Deputy Chief Jeffery Starr. Barron had, up till that point, not taken the exam.

“According to Deputy Chief Smyth, the word in the QFD was: ‘If Koch is Mayor, Barron will get the Chief's job.’ Smyth also recalled that, in January 2008, Deputy Chief Barron told him specifically: ‘I think he [Mayor Koch] offered me the job.’ Deputy Chief Barron testified he made such a statement, but said he was merely joking,” the report states.

McGunagle was offered the position but declined due to the salary, and Starr later withdrew his candidacy after learning of the starting pay.

Rather than selecting from the “short list,” Quincy officials decided to issue another test. Smyth appealed to the commission, which rejected the appeal, saying that Quincy was in its rights.

In that decision, however, the commission suggested that the final selection process by the mayor include the use of an outside panel to conduct interviews and make recommendations, or to broadcast interviews to the public and ask candidates similar questions.

The subsequent test put Captain Edward Fenby in first place, Smyth in second, and Barron in third. Despite the commission's suggestions, private interviews were set up with all applicants.

According to the report, Smyth submitted an eight-page resume, a two-page summary of his short and long-term goals for the department, and several letters of recommendation.
Fenby submitted a one-page resume to the interview panel; Barron submitted no resume and no documentation to the interview, the report said.

Koch chose Barron, citing seniority, his work on Local 792, and his family experience in the trolly business as the main reasons for his selection.

They were reasons that didn’t stand up to the commission’s critique.

“The evidence established that Quincy’s decision was predetermined that Deputy Chief Smyth would be bypassed long before, and without any regard to, the candidates' rank order on any civil service certification list or a fair and impartial evaluation of strengths and weaknesses of the candidates through a reasonably designed, objective process free of political or personal bias, as civil service law requires,” the report says.

The findings added fuel to the mayoral election, with candidate Anne Mahoney saying in a release that the ruling was "the latest confirmation that the Koch administration is rife with cronyism and mismanagement.”

“Quincy is back to square one with the fire chief position – all because Tom Koch refuses to follow the rule of law,” Mahoney said, referring to the Commission’s suggestion that Koch conduct the final process transparently.

According to Smyth's attorney Betsy Ehrenberg, the win was a long time coming, especially with the extensive evidence available on Smyth's side.

Additionally, an appeal would be unwise, she said.

"If I were a Quincy taxpayer, I’d be very concerned were my city to spend money on an appeal. Any citizen that reads the decision – and it is very readable – will see that this 60 page opinion is extremely thorough, precise, and based on a wealth of specific evidence," she said in an email. "There’s just no basis for an appeal."

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