By DJ Cronin
Mayor Joseph Curtatone’s personnel department recently announced plans to move police hiring to a reserve list, just weeks after Board of Aldermen members requested he end the practice of reserve lists completely.
All police and fire fighter hires are done through the civil service. A few cities choose to use a reserve system, which reserves spots for applicants for an indefinite period. In theory this streamlines the process for candidates to go to training. In practice Aldermen and veterans groups say the reserve list promotes cronyism and is costly to the city.
The abuse of reserve lists was the subject of a CBS I Team investigation in 2015. That investigation claimed the reserve list is “unfair and a waste of taxpayer money” due to the fact the list takes precedent over disabled veterans. Candidates on the list qualify for pensions, sometimes years before they ever start working for a city. Somerville’s current firefighter reserve list started in 2016, which means candidates are now three years into a pension system for a job they have yet to begin.
In an email to the Board of Aldermen on December 18, Somerville personnel director Candice Cooper explained that the city is having difficulty filling vacant police positions and will therefore move to a reserve list.
“As a result of these difficulties, we are not going to meet the goal of a March academy,” Cooper explained. “Moreover, the City expects in the coming months a number of additional vacancies will open up due to retirements.”
This decision came weeks after Aldermen questioned the administration for what they say was an abuse of the reserve firefighter list. On Nov. 15 the Public Health and Safety committee took up an order from Ward 2 Alderman JT Scott and sponsored by eight out of 11 Aldermen “that the administration refrain from appointing any further candidates to the position of Reserve Firefighter and seek to discontinue use of the Fire Reserve List at the earliest possible opportunity.”
This order was the result of a contentious decision by the city in 2016 to add 26 people to the reserve firefighter list, well above any previous list. The last person on the list was the nephew of former head of personnel and Ward 1 Alderman Bill Roche. The issue was brought to light when veteran activists filed a petition on behalf of veteran Josh McCann, who they argue was intentionally left off the list to accommodate Roche’s nephew.
“The city caused this problem by trying to bend the rules and policies of Civil Service by using a long expired requisition,” said Jesse Flynn, outreach coordinator for the advocacy group Massachusetts Fallen Heroes, to the Somerville Journal on March 24, 2016.
Ward 1 Alderman Matt McLaughlin noted in committee on Nov. 15 that due to the length of the reserve list, which drew names from the 2014 civil service exam, no one from the 2016 list will ever get on the fire department.
“I don’t like that that number one person is going to have to wait behind number 30 on the reserve firefighter list. We don’t know who this person is, but we know it will likely be a disabled veteran,” McLaughlin said. “No one from the 2016 exam is ever going to get a chance to be on the fire department.”
This is not the first time the reserve list was questioned in relation to discrimination against veterans. In 2010 Marine veteran Sean O’brien claimed he was passed over for a position on the fire department despite being number one on the civil service exam. O’brien claimed he was passed over to favor friends of Curtatone.
“I’m disgusted by what the city has done,” O’Brien said in an interview with The Somerville Times on Oct. 20, 2010. “It’s not the fire department that’s targeting me, I think it’s the mayor taking care of his own.”
In addition to alleged discrimination against veterans, the reserve system is also costly to the city. Alderman at Large Stephanie Hirsh pointed out on Nov. 15 that people on the reserve list are considered city employees and are eligible for a pension before they ever work a day for the city. In the case of the 2016 reserve firefighter list, those candidates are three years into a pension program that they can collect on after ten years.
“The main worry that I have is this… hidden costs that we don’t pay for until later, but it is a very significant cost to our budget,” Hirsh said.
Duing the Nov. 15 committee meet committee chair Jesse Clingan asked why the city uses a reserve list for the fire department but not police. Cooper stated that police don’t need the same level of information for their academy compared to the firefighter academy. Despite this, Cooper is now advocating for a police reserve list.
This is the most recent development in a series of conflicts between the mayor and the confirmation of appointments committee, who have rejected several appointments and requested more information on candidates than the city was willing to offer.