Feb. 27--SALEM -- The city's police and firefighter unions are trying to block Mayor Kim Driscoll's attempt to remove the chiefs from civil service.
In two recent letters to City Council members, firefighters and police officers stressed their opposition to the proposal, which would do away with the current system in which a chief is chosen from the top three candidates in the department based on civil service exam scores.
Without civil service, the mayor would be able to choose chiefs from inside or outside their departments and would enjoy greater leeway in firing one.
The issue took on special timeliness with police Chief Paul Tucker's announcement this week that he plans to run for state representative, though it's unclear whether the matter would be resolved in time to affect the hiring of his replacement, should one be necessary.
Beverly and Peabody recently removed their chiefs' positions from civil service.
Lt. James Walker and Patrolman Robert Phelan said in the letter on behalf of the Superior Officers Union and Salem Patrolman's Association that the civil service requirement was meant to keep politics out of job appointments and that the department doesn't need an outsider to take the wheel.
"We have internally developed great leaders to run this department, and there is no reason to believe this won't continue into the future," the letter said. "There is absolutely no need for the possibility to bring in an outsider to oversee the department's daily operations."
The letter noted that while civil service had been dropped in Beverly and Peabody, "just because they are doing it doesn't make it right or necessary."
"Both of those aforementioned departments had severe command and leadership problems not found here in Salem," Walker and Phelan wrote.
The letter also suggested that police were afraid that outside interference could extend to the chief's ability to hire, fire and promote officers.
"Even though Mayor Driscoll has agreed with Chief Tucker that the chief would retain this authority, there is a never-ceasing fear that at some point down the road, any mayor could attempt to wrest this power away," the letter said.
One of the arguments that Ray Krajeski, president of the Salem Firefighters Union, made in his letter is that there is no reason to change the current method of choosing chiefs.
"We do not feel as if this current process for selecting the chiefs is not working," he wrote. "The process has produced good leaders as far back as we can remember. Why does it need to be changed now?"
Krajeski also said that a fire chief needs to have deep connections in the department because the job involves life-threatening situations. He said it would be difficult for an outsider to achieve that level of intimacy.
"Knowing your people, and how they respond in life-threatening situations, is extremely critical for the incident commander when he is making decisions and giving direction," wrote Krajeski. "His decisions can mean the difference between life and death."
Another concern for firefighters is that future chiefs might "only be here to pad their resumes, increase their salaries, and then move on to bigger or financially more suitable situations or departments," he wrote.
"We feel that if the position is removed from civil service, the position will be a revolving door," Krajeski wrote. "For example, look at how many superintendents of schools the city of Salem has had over the last 20 years. By comparison, in the last 20 years, the Fire Department has had only two chiefs."
Driscoll previously argued in a letter to the City Council that chiefs ought to be chosen "based on a more robust and informative set of criteria than Civil Service scores alone," though she also called the city's current two chiefs "highly qualified and capable."
"I don't think by opening it up we're limiting the opportunity for the people who are in the department," she said yesterday. "We're just providing ourselves with a wider net."