CHELMSFORD – By a single vote, the city has voted to remove the deputy fire chief from public service at the annual fall town meeting at the Senior Center Monday night.
In a 56-55 vote with four abstentions, the city will allow the fire chief to choose his deputy. Municipal meeting previously vote to exempt the Chief of Police and Deputy Chief of Police from public office in 1993 and 2003, respectively. City Manager Paul Cohen said the newest exemption will ensure parity between police and fire chiefs and “help the city with succession planning.”
But it took almost an hour and a half for the representatives of the municipal assembly to come to this decision.
Cohen explained that entry-level police officers and firefighters, as well as higher-ranking positions like police sergeants and lieutenants and fire captains have public office, but it’s not necessarily appropriate for the deputy firefighters be included in this. Cohen said the policy was successful in the police department.
“We’re not looking to eliminate the public service,” Cohen said. “What we’re looking to do is talk about the most efficient way for the person chosen to lead this department to choose their assistant or deputy to most effectively run this department.”
The finance committee unanimously recommended the item, but the select committee largely did not, with only one member, Pat Wojtas, voting in favour.
At the request of a resident, Police Chief James Spinney spoke about his experience choosing his two deputies, who he says are “essential” in the department. Selecting these assistants meant assessing personality traits, communication skills, job performance and more, Spinney said, and things like leadership skills often can’t be captured in an exam.
“Some of them are difficult to measure in a test environment,” Spinney said. “Some people are not tested well. That doesn’t mean they wouldn’t be a good leader. And just the reverse is true.
Spinney said the system worked well within the police department and deputies needed to be “well-connected to the community” to serve adequately.
Josh Abbott, vice-president of Chelmsford Fire Department Local 1839, said a special legislative commission had recently “found that the public service is strong and holding its own” and that the problem actually lies in a lack of state funding. He urged the city to vote against the article.
“The civil service is designed to be fair and impartial,” he said.
Rob Albon, president of the firefighters’ union, asked the finance committee why he supported the article. Several committee members said choosing a leader based on his or her performance in public service alone can lead to unforeseen costs.
Albon said city management “chooses” where it chooses to enforce parity between police and firefighters. About 80% of eligible municipalities use the civil service, Albon added, and Chelmsford’s succession plan has already changed three times.
Firefighters were also not included in those conversations, he said.
“The Department of Labor Relations has case law that any change to the promotion process is a mandatory subject of collective bargaining,” Albon said. “The city has just gone through the DLR regarding another one city public safety union. Are we ready to take this road again?
Basing those hiring decisions on public service means the department can “keep politics out of public safety,” Albon said.
After taking part in a Civil Service study last year, Fire Chief Gary Ryan said chiefs’ biggest problem was “the lack of flexibility” provided by the system. There are a number of communities larger than Chelmsford – such as Braintree, Barnstable and Amherst – not covered by the public service, and others have decided or are currently deciding not to use it either.
Residents seemed extremely divided on the issue, with several speaking out for and against the article.
The section barely passed, meaning the select committee is being asked to ask the Legislature to enact special legislation exempting the deputy fire chief from public service.
In other cases, Town Meeting has also approved:
• $1.5 million from the money available to carry out 3.25 miles of road rehabilitation
• $1,089,782 from cash available in the general stabilization fund
• $500,000 from retained sewer company fund earnings for sewer capital improvements
• $254,500 from money available for PFAS remediation at 54 Richardson Road
• $164,513 from money available to reduce property tax for the 2023 fiscal year.
The three proposed items in a citizens’ petition presented by Precinct 10 Representative Chris Lavallee also passed with two-thirds separate votes during the second night of Thursday’s town hall.
The first two articles changed the definition of “warehouse” and added the definitions of “small distribution center”, “medium distribution center” and “large distribution center” to the city code. The last article added new lines in the distribution center regulatory scheme, taking into account these new definitions.
This comes as residents continue to to oppose a proposed industrial warehouse project on Riverneck Road, which is still in the public hearing phase.