The 5-4 vote by Gloucester's City Council last week to ask state legislators to pull the city's police and fire chiefs' positions out from under the umbrella of stifling Civil Service laws will not be confused with any consensus. And that may pose some problems in its own right.
But Mayor Carolyn Kirk can certainly give the council's petition weight if she gives this long-overdue measure the emphatic endorsement it deserves. For while many on the council still cling to the mystifying notion that no chief or other top public safety administrator from outside Gloucester's current police and fire rosters could possibly come in to reform and run Gloucester's departments, the mayor could at least allow the city to take this important first step toward change if she backs the petition that gained the narrowest of council approvals. If she doesn't back it at all, that would be a step toward continuing with business as usual when it comes to choosing the city's chiefs — and that, quite simply, would be unacceptable.
The council's latest Civil Service push — led, to his credit, by Councilor Jason Grow — merely asks state lawmakers for their needed legislation removing Gloucester's two chief's positions from the Civil Service statutes. It doesn't even ask about opening applications for the chief's jobs — when they become available — to applicants from outside the departments. That's a step that the vast majority of Massachusetts communities have long since taken — and one that Gloucester must take as soon as possible. But it is nonetheless one that can't be taken until the positions are first removed from the constraints of Civil Service regulations. So, with that in mind, the council petition merely asks state lawmakers to allow the first baby step in this process.
The Legislature, however, won't even go that far if the measure doesn't have the backing of both the council and the mayor. Given the council's close vote — and considering that the Legislature usually likes to see consensus when it comes to such changes — it now becomes crucial for Kirk to not only approve the potential change, but to do so convincingly. And for an administration built on reform, this is indeed one of the most basic and important reforms the city can carry out.
The police and fire chiefs and unions, of course, think things are just fine the way they are. They believe that their chiefs should be protected by Civil Service guidelines — and, more importantly, that only in-house candidates should be able to have the chance to become chief when their department's top job turns over. And they have support within the council. While they initially supported Grow's proposal, both Sefatia Romeo and Jackie Hardy backed off when they couldn't get some assurance that the chief's posts would still be limited to inside applicants, so they voted with John "Gus" Foote and Joseph Ciolino to oppose it.
But they — like current department members — miss a key point. Opening the door to outside applicants doesn't ensure that the next chief may be chosen from outside the community; indeed, inside candidates would likely still have advantage, given that they know the department and the community. An open process, however, would give Gloucester the opportunity to interview and potentially hire a top-notch candidate who has already gained chief's experience someplace else — and who may have already carried out the kind of departmental reforms that Gloucester may need.
Right now, that type of candidate, sadly, can't even apply. That shortchanges Gloucester's police officers, firefighters and, most of all, its taxpayers. And it's time for that archaic, union-driven system to be out of its misery, as it has in so many other cities and towns.
Even with the mayor's endorsement, there's no assurance that the council's legislative request will bring Gloucester the full reforms its chiefs' selection process needs. But with the mayor's backing, the city should be able to at least take this first important step. Let's hope in gets her very solid stamp of approval.