Greenfield City Council votes to remove fire, police chief from Civil Service

By MARY BYRNE

Staff Writer

Published: 07-20-2023 3:06 PM

GREENFIELD — After a lengthy discussion Wednesday night, City Council voted to remove the police and fire chief positions from Civil Service, bringing both in congruence with their respective departments’ rank-and-file officers.

“The Civil Service process, in the past, for smaller departments … really limited you on who you could look at for supervisory positions, especially our positions,” said Police Chief Robert Haigh Jr., who spoke alongside Fire Chief Robert Strahan on Wednesday in favor of removing the chief positions from Civil Service. “I hope there’s somebody [within the department] that’s qualified that wants it, but if there isn’t, you need the ability to go outside and have a bigger candidate pool.”

Civil Service is the state’s merit-based hiring system for filling public safety positions, according to the Massachusetts Municipal Association. Per Civil Service law, appointing authorities must select qualified applicants from Civil Service lists.

“I just want my people to be able to compete, and they would not under the Civil Service system,” Strahan added. “The departments are out of the Civil Service system. It doesn’t make sense to have one position within … either organization to still be within the system, operating under different rules than the rest of the department.”

Strahan noted that he and Haigh, as the current chiefs, would be grandfathered in. The same was true when rank-and-file officers were removed from Civil Service.

Departments using the Civil Service exam system require the first responder to work within 10 miles of the fire or police station.

“The test was supposed to give candidates within a certain community area the first opportunities to work for their local department,” Haigh explained. “Twenty years ago, we had 75 people when I signed the list. Now we’re lucky if we might get 10 people that sign the list in town, and maybe one of those might be viable. Boston … Worcester, where they have larger populations to take the exam, they’re not having the issues we’re having out in western Mass.”

Haigh added that hiring a chief through the Civil Service process would be “overly expensive” and that the required tests are not necessarily a “good judge of people who are qualified, or should be given the opportunity.”

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Historically, Civil Service has also been seen as a way to ensure qualified candidates are found and promoted for municipal jobs without undue political influence.

“Most departments have realized this is an old system that doesn’t work anymore,” said Strahan. “With our department, we replaced a system with a system. We have a policy that spells out exactly how our hiring process goes. … The recruits we’ve hired since we’ve been out [of Civil Service] have been top-notch that we would have never picked up … if we were still in the Civil Service system.”

The police chief last returned to Civil Service through a city ballot question in 2003. The fire chief, meanwhile, has been in Civil Service since the 1930s as a result of a Town Meeting vote.

In 2019, City Council voted to remove Civil Service from governing the city’s Police Department for its rank-and-file officers. The Fire Department later followed suit.

Originally, it was understood that the positions must exit Civil Service the same way they went in, but a more recent legal opinion, according to city officials, stated this was not necessary.

City councilors asked clarifying questions of the two chiefs and some wondered if it was an issue that should first be reviewed at the subcommittee level. In general, however, councilors seemed to be in consensus that the protections Civil Service afforded when it was first established are now safeguarded by labor unions and human resource departments.

“Those things are a lot stronger,” said At-Large Councilor Michael Terounzo. “I’m glad it’s come straight to the council floor, and I think we should … have our departments in congruence with each other.”

All councilors in attendance on Wednesday voted in favor of removing the police and fire chief positions from Civil Service. At-Large Councilor Penny Ricketts was absent.

Reporter Mary Byrne can be reached at mbyrne@recorder.com or 413-930-4429. Twitter: @MaryEByrne.

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