The following is an opinion piece written by Town Meeting member Judith Feinleib regarding the Town’s proposal to withdraw the Belmont Police Department from the State’s Civil Service program. It is being re-posted, with Judith’s permission, from her blog. You can read Judith’s other If I May columns at her website: jfeinleibifimay.com.
Rather than take “no” for an answer, members of the town’s executive branch appear to have adopted an approach whereby if a result they desire has not been obtained because Town Meeting voted against it or a town-wide vote by the residents went against it, they repeat the exercise. The latest of these efforts would have Belmont’s Police Department leave the Civil Service. In an unusual move, an article on the September, 2020 Town Meeting warrant that would have had Belmont exit the Civil Service was withdrawn in the face of overwhelming opposition.
To this end, an active campaign is being mounted by the executive with a view to addressing Town Meeting Members’ (TMMs) original concerns as well as any new concerns as a prelude to having the November, 2023 Town Meeting vote on leaving. Because the Fire Department recently concluded a contract, the town would have to wait until new negotiations were needed with its members to repeat this process.
No plan for what would follow were the police to leave the Civil Service has been fashioned by Belmont’s executives. Were this to be done and presented in November, TMMs could make a decision on a real plan rather than making a decision on the promise of a plan.
The town has stipulated that only new hires would be affected. This is not accurate. When questioned at the September 7 Select Board Input Meeting, Select Board members admitted that officers who are promoted would lose Civil Service coverage.
- If Town Meeting were to vote to leave in November, the vote would authorize the Town Administrator to negotiate with unions and employees who know that in relatively short order, few, if any, of them would have Civil Service protection. This would necessarily put the union negotiators at a disadvantage.
- Because no plan has been laid out for Town Meeting to consider, TMMs and other citizens will neither have any idea about nor any say in what the Town Administrator negotiates on behalf of all of us.
It may be that a carefully crafted plan for everything that will need to happen should Belmont leave the Civil Service would be advantageous for Belmont as well as for police and (eventually) fire department personnel. However, it’s equally possible that it won’t be. There are important issues that need to be explored before a vote is taken on whether or not to leave. They include but are NOT limited to: (1) diversity; (2) attracting new hires; (3) cost to Belmont; and (4) Town Meeting’s legislative responsibility.
Diversity is a loaded term; attempts to define it can easily lead to accusations of racism. Like the term food insecurity which is really about not having enough to eat, diversity is used to deal with many of the issues that affect racial and religious minorities as well as those involving sexual orientation. That we have gussied up the terminology does not change the serious nature of the matters to which they apply.
Police Chief Jamie MacIsaac, the primary spokesperson for those advocating a Civil Service exit, has said that among the important reasons to leave the Civil Service is a need for diversity. He appears to be maintaining that that is not possible because of the way Civil Service policies affect Belmont. Even if the Chief, the Town Administrator and the Select Board had laid out their definition of diversity, which alas, they have not, it would behoove us to examine what conditions are in Belmont at the present time.
Reflecting the needs of the town which is small, the Belmont Police Department is small; it has fewer than 47 members of all ranks. As is required, all were hired from the Civil Service list. Given the size of the department, its breadth is astonishing. The department has:
- two bi-racial officers, one of Asian and Hispanic descent who speaks Cantonese, Spanish and of course, English, and the other of American and Bermudian descent; the American/Bermudian officer was a recent Civil Service list hire;
- a Native American officer;
- a officer of Lebanese descent;
- two officers of Armenian descent;
- at least two LGBTQ officers;
- five female officers; and
- a female social worker who is a mental health first responder.
This breakdown does not include a number of women filling somewhat traditional roles in the Records Department.
If Belmont needs to be even more diverse, what is it that defines diversity as it applies here?
- Should it be greater racial diversity? The list above includes people of different races and ethnic backgrounds. Moreover, both the Police and the Fire Departments have Black officers.
- Should it be greater religious diversity? Even without asking individuals about their religious beliefs, another look at that list suggests that the classic New England Police Department of most of the 20th century, the majority of whose members were Irish Catholics, is not what exists today in Belmont.
- Should there be a better balance between male and female officers? Very possibly yes but programs outside the Massachusetts Civil Service, most notably, the Fitchburg State program often cited as an example of a candidate pool that would be available were Belmont to leave the Civil Service, are not graduating enough women to make this a reality.
Attracting New Hires
Chief MacIsaac maintains that he has been unable to fill a number of positions from the Civil Service list and that more vacancies are going to occur because some of his officers are reservists in the armed forces and may be called up for specified periods of time. He has noted that while there have been some candidates, they have either chosen not to finish the interview process or, they have taken jobs elsewhere. The Chief appears to believe that were Belmont to leave the Civil Service a wider pool of applicants would be available.
This position merits serious independent investigation before any action is taken. Belmont does not offer salaries that are as high those offered by many other municipalities. It is reasonable to posit that some of the applicants have taken jobs that offer higher salaries and possibly better benefits; many of the graduates of the independent Fitchburg State program have done just that.
Equally, the Chief stated during the September 7 Select Board Input Meeting that were the Belmont police to leave the Civil Service, the town would have to offer higher salaries than it does now in order to attract applicants. This suggests that the problem is not the Civil Service but rather, the amount an officer can expect to earn.
Cost to Belmont
Cost is always important. Especially in a year when the Select Board has said it will ask the residents to approve an override that many expect will add a minimum of $1000 to the property tax bill in addition to the increases caused by the high school, the library and the rink, the cost of any action must be considered before a vote is taken on it.
If Belmont leaves the Civil Service, it must replace what is currently provided. A partial list of services includes delineating job requirements, validating applications, training, testing, creating a list of qualified applicants to be used by municipalities, laying out regulations including codes of conduct for officers of all ranks, and prosecution of those who violate Civil Service regulations and state laws.
As the result of a legislative investigation conducted from 2021 – 2022 by the Civil Service Subcommittee of the Massachusetts Public Safety Committee, the Civil Service has expanded its Human Resources Division and the legislature has funded it more extensively. The agency has already become much more efficient and effective; this is expected to continue. Many fees previously paid by job applicants or members have been reduced or eliminated. These costs would have to be borne by Belmont or reassigned to applicants and officers, something that would likely reduce the number of applicants.
Even this cursory examination suggests that leaving the Civil Service and replacing it with a well designed structure will necessarily cost Belmont money that it does not spend now. Why? Because it has to design the structure, staff it and deliver and pay for all that the Civil Service currently provides. Anything not handled by Belmont itself will necessitate hiring an outside service; Belmont’s neighbor, Lexington uses and pays for getbadged.com. In addition, as noted by Chief MacIsaac, Belmont will have to offer higher salaries in order to attract applicants.
This is not a prescription for reducing costs or even holding them level! It is a prescription for raising Belmont’s costs significantly! Taxpayers are guaranteed to see big increases in their property tax bills as the result of the three big building projects ― the high school, the library and the rink. On top of that they are going to be asked to vote for an enormous operating override, one that will likely increase their property taxes by at least $1000. Anything that adds even more costs is irresponsible.
If/How Town Meeting Should Do This
If Town Meeting is to consider leaving the Civil Service, the executive and the unions should negotiate a well thought out plan and then submit it to the members for their consideration and votes. This would permit TMMs to make an informed decision.
Absent that, Town Meeting should neither consider leaving nor vote to leave. Under no circumstances should it permit the Town Administrator to negotiate without any input from or supervision by Town Meeting. Leaving the Civil Service will be on the November Town Meeting warrant. TMMs should vote NO and separately, find a way to require a plan which they can review prior to any vote.