Plans to reinstitute the long-dormant assistant chief position in the Melrose Fire Department are on hold after the Melrose Board of Aldermen voted Monday night to table Chief Christopher Leary and City Hall's request to remove it from civil service.
At the aldermen's Appropriation Committee meeting on June 28, the committee unanimously voted to , with an eye on a scheduled July 6 meeting between the Melrose Firefighters 1617 union and city administrators.
While the decision whether or not to remove the assistant chief position from civil service is solely up to the aldermen, many of the details surrounding how the position would be filled need to be bargained with the union, Melrose City Solicitor Rob Van Campen told the aldermen in June.
Among those details are leaving the seventh captain's position unfilled to fund the position, as proposed by the city; any impact on the Fire Prevention Office or the department as a whole; the duties and responsibilities of the assistant chief; and even whether the assistant chief is a union position or not—as removing the position from civil service does not necessarily mean it becomes a non-union job.
The July 6 meeting between the union and city administrators was an informal, off the record discussion, Melrose Human Resources Director Marianne Long told the aldermen, and the city is now waiting for union to schedule the next meeting.
Union Wants More Time, City Says Move Only A First Step
Local 1617 President Lt. Dan White said the union is asking for more time to work out differences between the union and city's positions.
"A lot more thought and time went into the dog park and leash ordinance," White said. "We ask for the same consideration."
Leary and Long reiterated the city's stance that the board's vote is only a first step, as the city still needs to bargain with the union before filling the position, and that they'd like the aldermen to approve removing the assistant chief from civil service so they can send their petition to the state Legislature—which must also approve the move—before formal session ends on July 31 and doesn't start again until January.
Ward 2 Alderman Monica Medeiros said that when the aldermen voted to move the request forward without a recommendation, "I think largely we wanted to see, or at least I did, how the negotiations went at that July 6 meeting.
"The (union) members here would like to have us take our time and wait a little bit longer," Medeiros said. "I don’t believe holding this past even the July 31 deadline is something we should be urgent about."
On the other side of the aisle, Ward 5 Alderman Gail Infurna echoed Leary and Long's stance that voting to remove the position from civil service is only the nascent stages of filling the position, with negotiations with the union still needed.
"So I’m looking at it that it goes to the House, gets the home rule petition, then it’s up to Chief Leary and doesn’t have to be filled right away," Infurna said.
In a close vote, the board voted 6-4 to table the proposal.
Union Reiterates Opposition to Removing Assistant Chief From Civil Service
White told the board that the Melrose Firefighters Local 1617 union still supports the addition of an assistant chief position, as he said in June, but not at the expense of a current captain's position.
In terms of civil service, the state Office of Administration and Finance lists a civil service exam for a deputy fire chief. In response to a question from Melrose Patch, Long and Leary previously said that the position is not the same as an assistant chief and that a within the Melrose Fire Department structure.
However, White pointed out Monday night that the city ordinance states, "The Assistant Chief shall be the Deputy Chief and shall exercise the powers and perform the duties of the Chief in case of the latter's absence or disability."
Leary could provisionally appoint an assistant fire chief until the next civil service exam is given for deputy chief, White said, and then "if the city's candidate scored in the top three exam scores then he would be appointed permanently to the position." Mayor Rob Dolan told Boston.com that he and Leary have tentatively selected current Fire Capt. Ed Collina for the job. Collina was also after .
White also reiterated the union's opposition to the city's plan to fill the position by not funding the seventh captain position; by not allowing other department captains the opportunity to apply or take a civil service exam for the position; and to move duties currently done by Collina as captain to the role of assistant chief.
"We feel this will set back union/city relations—union busting—add additional costs for the assistant chief salary, increase overtime costs for each captain absence and possibly subject the city to ligitation, similar to the ladder truck agreement which cost the city $750,000," he said.
City: Vote Not Final Word
Long reiterated that the vote would only remove the assistant chief from civil service, not from the union, nor would it negatively impact public safety. She also added that it "isn't a vote against Local 1617 membership," and said that the revived Fire Department ambulance service, fire suppression and other initiatives "would not be as professional state of the art as they are today if the membership had not participated and cooperated."
She also said that a vote by the aldermen and approval by the state Legislature isn't the final word.
"Let’s say they (the state Legislature) do vote positively—we would not move to fill this position until we fulfilled all our bargaining obligations," she said.
Asked by Alderman at-Large Mary Beth McAteer Margolis why he wouldn't favor a provisional appointment for the time being, Leary said that a provisional appointment would go by the rules of civil service, which is what the city wants to not apply to the assistant chief position.
"It kind of ties your hand at some point," he said. "I don’t think there’s continuity in the position."
Ward 7 Alderman Bill Forbes said the issue comes down to the city negotiating with the union about the seventh captain position and the duties currently performed by the captain, adding that whether management or union, "once you give something up you never get it back.
"I would’ve loved to see you (Long and Leary) and the union president sitting there saying you already met here through collective bargaining, worked out our differences," Forbes said. "As far as it being a union thing, the last three union presidents have supported the assistant chief’s job. It’s not that. Negotiate that captain’s position. That’s the whole thing."
"We're in the process," Leary replied, with Long adding, "That's what we intend to do."