Thursday Evening: Speak Up For Civil Service

A shout out to Blogging Belmont readers: there’s a very important public hearing taking place Thursday evening, September 7th, at 7:00 pm to discuss a proposal to withdraw our town from Massachusetts’ Civil Service – a radical step that will remove critical hiring and staffing protections designed to prevent patronage hires and other abuses.

You can find the agenda for the hybrid Select Board Public Input Hearing here. Or use the button below to join the Zoom for the hybrid hearing.

The background here is that Belmont – like other towns – is chafing at the bureaucratic strictures of the state’s Civil Service system. Our Fire and Police Chiefs – desperate to fill open positions in their departments while also meeting diversity hiring goals – seek greater flexibility and choice than they feel the current Civil Service system offers.

But Civil Service also offers considerable protections to communities that partake in it. In addition to screening for candidate quality, via civil service exams, it also provides protections against the kinds of patronage that – prior to the creation of the civil service system – was rife in local government.

The Civil Service Cerberus and the Hercules of spoils
by George Yost Coffin. Courtesy of The Library of Congress

It is possible to retain such protections and replace the state-run Civil Service system with a Town-run alternative. I’m not opposed to that idea. It may even be advantageous for Belmont. But any such system would need to get sign off from our local public safety departments – Police and Fire – who are the most affected by it.

The clear expectation from Town Meeting members when this was brought before TM in 2020 was that the Town Administrator, the Select Board, our police and fire chiefs and our public safety unions would sit at the negotiating table and hammer out a compromise that worked for everyone before returning to Town Meeting.

I’m hopeful that’s what has happened – and I look forward to learning more Thursday evening. But I have my doubts. Having spoken with people in or close to both the BPD and BFD, however, it does not seem that the Town has any such plan in mind. In other words – from what I can tell – the proposal is to simply pull Belmont out of civil service with nothing more than a “just trust us” in its place.

That’s not good enough now and it wasn’t good enough three years ago- the last time this proposal was brought before Town Meeting for approval, before being tabled by the Select Board in the face of withering questions from TM members. (I wrote this blog post at the time expressing my concerns about the proposed withdrawal. It all pretty much stands true today.)

“Trust us!” and “We’d never do something like that!” isn’t going to cut it – for obvious reasons. A _lot_ has changed since the 19th century when civil service systems were adopted to prevent graft and patronage. Alas, human nature has not. Absent the protections offered by Civil Service – whether managed by the state or managed locally – there’s every reason to expect that the “Spoils System” will return, stronger than ever. I hope you’ll join me Thursday evening to make that much clear to our Town’s leadership.