Belmont’s Steaming Ahead to Leave Civil Service. Here are 5 Reasons I’ll Be Voting NO

tl;dr: I’ll be voting no on Article #10 because: It will open the door to patronage and corruption | It will decrease not increase police accountability | It will *not* save us money | It will *not* increase diversity | It treats Town Meeting like a rubber stamp

With our Fall Special Town Meeting just around the corner, one of the most contentious issues facing Belmont is a sudden and surprise effort by the Town’s Select Board and Town Administrator to unilaterally pull Belmont’s Fire and Police Departments from the State’s Civil Service system, which Belmont has been a part of for 105 years.

The Town’s arguments for doing so are that the Civil Service system, as managed by the State, is sclerotic and impedes hiring. Entrance exams are held only every two years. Based on how candidates perform on the test, Towns receive a ranked list to choose from. The same is true with promotions in rank: performance on civil service exams plays a big role in who moves up. Civil service also offers Police and Fire fighters protections against arbitrary firing.

Chiefs in Towns like Belmont chafe at the restrictions and bureaucratic malaise of the system. They’d like to be able to choose from a wider pool of candidates and hire based on the needs of their community (say: foreign language proficiency, gender, minority status, etc.)

That sounds reasonable enough – and even like something I’d support. But before voting on such a big change, Belmont Town Meeting members should consider the justifications for making the change, what the immediate effect of that change will likely be and how well the Town’s leadership is prepared to address those issues.

In each case, I think a close inspection should convince Belmont Town Meeting members that our political leaders have provided concrete answers to NONE of these questions. That’s why I’ll be voting a (hard) “NO” on Article 10, even as I hold out the possibility that in some not distant future – should our political leaders actually do their homework and come to Town Meeting with more than a blank sheet of paper to sign – I’ll be willing to hear them out and even vote “YES.”

Here are the five reasons why I’ll be voting “NO” (and why you should consider doing the same).  

It will open the door to patronage and corruption

Let’s get the first big one out of the way: I’m going to vote “NO” on Article 10 because leaving the Civil Service will open our Fire and Police departments to political influence and patronage in hiring, firing and promotions.

After all, the Civil Service was created specifically to root out corruption. And, while our current system is flawed, it has been extraordinarily successful in achieving the one thing it was created to do. Today, we don’t worry that police officers or fire fighters were hired because they’re some Select Board member’s n’er do well nephew who needs a break or as payback for some political favor. Its been so long since anyone thought like that, we kind of imagine public corruption is a thing of the past.

In Wellesley: after leaving Civil Service, the Fire Chief hired two of his sons to serve alongside him on the force.

Wellesley Fire Department Data

It isn’t. I’ll note that Wellesley’s Fire Department, which exited civil service, now has a Fire Chief, a Lieutenant and a firefighter all named “DeLorie.” A coincidence? No, the Chief – freed from the restraints of civil service – went out and hired two of his sons onto the force. In fact, 15 of 55 firefighters or staff at Wellesley’s Fire Department are related by blood to another firefighter.

While there’s a long, proud tradition of sons and daughters following their parents into service, this is something else. The density in Wellesley’s force is exceptional and, no surprise, having children and siblings competing for promotions from their dad creates tensions within the force and underscores the dire risks to Belmont should we exit without a clear plan for ensuring professionalism and transparency in hiring, firing and promotions. 

I’ll note also that in attempting to speak to current PD and FD members and family members, I have been told on more than one occasion that they fear speaking out because of the fear of retaliation from the chiefs should this Article pass. This kind of cronyism is exactly what we _don’t_ need in Town of Homes.

It will decrease, not increase Police accountability

A few of my progressive friends have seemed to connect withdrawing from the Civil Service with increasing police accountability. Obviously, we’re hearing a lot about making police officers and departments more accountable for their actions, as incident after incident of police brutality and officer involved shootings earn media attention and spur protests.

As desperate as many of us are to see reforms in how policing is conducted in the U.S., it is important for all Town Meeting members to realize that the Civil Service does not serve to shield police officers from accountability. The civil service sets and enforces standards for hiring, firing and promotions to shield police and fire from political influence and patronage not public scrutiny or legal accountability.

To the extent that we’ve seen police departments shielded from legal accountability or public scrutiny, it is almost always because of contractual or legislative tools that have been introduced over the years as part of union negotiations, court rulings or targeted “tough on crime” legislation. Widely recognized problems such as qualified immunity, shield laws, etc. are a recent outgrowth of our “war on drugs” and other tough on crime policies in the last 50 years, not a byproduct of the civil service.

In fact, there’s a lot of reason to believe that withdrawing from the Civil Service will make matters worse. After all, Belmont withdrawing from the Civil Service will have one clear consequence: it will concentrate the power to hire, fire and promote in the hands of our (white, male) fire and police chiefs and the Town’s (white, male) political leaders on the Select Board. History has shown us: that’s a recipe for disaster. 

It will *not* save us money

The BIG argument for leaving the civil service is that it will save Belmont’s Town Government lots of money. But our Selectman and Town Administrator have produced no data to back up that contention and nothing more than “back of the envelope” estimates to bolster their argument. This, despite being explicitly asked to produce such data by Town Meeting members.

The Town’s rather convoluted argument – made by Select Board member Roy Epstein – is that leaving Civil Service will help us fill vacant positions on our Police and Fire Departments. That, in turn, will reduce our reliance on overtime and that will end up saving us money. Again: interesting argument. Where’s the data? It should be easy enough to look at the budgets of other towns that have come out of Civil Service and see whether their annual cost for public safety is wildly different than Belmont’s.

The reason the Town Administrator and Select Board can’t produce the data is that it doesn’t exist. A comparison of towns that have left the civil service and towns that have stayed in it reveals no substantive difference in the cost (per FTE) of either police or fire services. Why? Because costs imposed by the Civil Service are not a driver of the costs of providing public safety. Most of the cost of the system is borne by the people who use it. Rather, salaries and overhead (like healthcare) drive those costs. Those are matters that are negotiated with our unions totally apart from the Civil Service. 

It will *not* increase diversity

The other bit of hand waving our Town Administrator and Select Board are doing is with regard to diversity hiring. Belmont – like most other communities — would like a police force and fire department that reflect the racial, gender and linguistic diversity of the community. And, like most communities, we’re not there yet.

However, leaving civil service will not meaningfully change that situation, because the fact is that public safety has a pipeline problem, not a hiring problem.

In fact, the civil service already permits towns like Belmont to prioritize the hiring of female police and fire candidates. The problem: there aren’t many of them, and towns compete heavily to get them. So too minority candidates: because there is an anemic pipeline of minority men and women seeking to become firefighters and police officers, competition is intense for those who do. In or out of civil service, Belmont will face the same scarcity problem as it looks to diversify its ranks. Consider Wellesley, which had three minority fire fighters prior to leaving the civil service in 2012. Eight years later, they have hired more minority firefighters, but the existing minority firefighters on the force have retired. The net: the department still has three minority members.

If our town leadership has any data to support their contention that we’ll see a big jump in diversity hires out of civil service, I’d like to see it. To date they’ve provided nothing but words and empty promises. As with the cost savings, my guess is that they haven’t presented the data because it doesn’t exist. 

And – it should be noted – public safety is not the only Town department with a diversity problem. Officials and Town leaders who grouse about diversity on the BPD and BFD should take a look around our Wonder Bread Town Hall before casting stones.

Town Meeting is being treated like a rubber stamp

Belmont Town Meeting has a long, not very proud history of being a rubber stamp for the Select Board and powerful, appointed and elected committees like the Warrant Committee and School Committee. In recent years, I’ve been pleased and proud to see this body exert its independence from the Town’s leadership on critical issues including the Town Center reconstruction, school funding and other matters. The message we have sent is that Town Meeting is not a rubber stamp for decisions made at the Select Board table or in the Town Administrator’s office.

Article #10 is a return to the bad old days. Our Select Board and Town Administrator introduced this item out of the blue and with no prior discussion within the town. For a community that set up a committee to study the size of our recycling bins, the notion that pulling out of a system that has served us for a century isn’t worthy of similar consideration is absurd. In foisting this matter on Town Meeting, our Town Administrator and Select Board are making promises about cost savings and diversity, but have been unable to provide TMMs with any hard data to support them. A Select Board member said to me in an email that the goal was to bring this matter to Town Meeting “early” and see how it went. That’s insulting and the exact opposite of how things are supposed to work. There are important considerations that the Town should make before pulling out of Civil Service. Chief among them: how to preserve the protections against corruption and patronage that the civil service provided. Belmont’s Select Board owes it to the Town and Town Meeting to study these questions, forumlate a clear plan of action once we leave Civil Service and get buy-in and input from our police and fire men and women. They’ve done none of that. Instead, they are presenting Town Meeting with a blank sheet of paper to sign – details to be filled in after we sign it. Don’t be a rubber stamp. Join me in voting “NO.”