Fire Dept. Hiring Questions Sent to Personnel Hearing Board.
Delays could reach $1 Million overtime in Worst Case.
Council Receives Solicitor Dias Report: Faria Motion passes to send questions to Hearing Board:
The East Providence City Council voted unanimously at its February 21, 2017 meeting to ask the city Personnel Hearing Board to review their recent decision to not certify a list of firefighter applicants. The action has caused the city to start the entire process over from square one in a move that could cost the city thousands of dollars in overtime costs.
At the council's last meeting they voted to have city solicitor Greg Dias conduct an investigation into what happened with the recent firefighter hiring controversy.
Ward 1 councilman asked if the meeting minutes were yet available from the hearing board's votes to not certify applicants. The council wants the minutes in an attempt to determine why the minimum scoring for fire applicants was lowered and why the hearing board felt the advertising was insufficient.
Dias told the council that the hearing board hasn't met since their last session and therefore meeting minutes have not been certified. Acting Manager Tim Chapman told the council that he doesn't know when the board will meet next. "I would hope it's shortly though," said Chapman.
The council was told that the hearing board meets "as needed" and not on a regular basis. "These are prestigious boards and everyone wants to sit on them. No one on the council is happy with what happened here. Some decisions are tough. I'm asking the council to send this back to the personnel review board. Now that they know all the facts, let's make them meet again. That's my motion," said Ward 4 councilman Brian Faria.
Before entertaining that motion, Mayor Briden ruled that the council should hear Dias' report first. The council was also told that the hearing board most likely meets without benefit of legal counsel.
Dias basically upheld the personnel hearing board's decision. Dias stated that the city charter didn't allow for the dropping of the minimum score below an average of 70. Dias also said that in the past the Providence Journal was used for advertising but it wasn't done so this time.
Dias cited irregularities between a recently completed process to hire police recruits versus the process for firefighters. He stated a wider advertising scope was used for police hiring than for fire applicants.
Dias also said that city staff discussed test scores and then lowered the threshold did so against the city charter. The city ordinance states that once test scores are received by applicants, the final passing level can't be changed. All of these things were done by unnamed city staff.
Dias reported that the personnel hearing board voted not to certify an applicant list because of process violations. "The city can appeal or sue its own board if it thinks a legal standing exists.
"The decision of the personnel hearing board appears to be a logical decision based upon facts, They really have no obligation to hear this matter again," advised solicitor Dias.
"We need to send this back to them for a third meeting. Third time is the charm," continued Faria.
Ward 3 councilman Joe Botelho wasn't satisfied. "We have no idea who committed what errors. The advertising errors are laughable. The Reporter (where the original ad was placed) goes directly to over 24,000 homes and apartments. The Projo only has a circulation of about 3,000 and the Post is placed in various store locations," said Botelho.
Mayor Jim Briden repeatedly asked that the board should meet with an attorney for legal advice. Ward 2 councilwoman was also unhappy. "It is disturbing that there were two lists, police and fire. What was so drastically different? Somebody needs to be accountable. How can one list (police) go through with no problems," Sousa asked.
Botelho asked fire chief Oscar Elmasian to address the overtime issue. "We won't make the March academy either way. At the earliest I need a month to prepare for equipment, training, uniforms, etc," said Chief Elmasian. "At the extreme we could be looking at $925,000 in overtime expenses in excess of what we anticipate overtime to be. I have 6 openings to fill. I wanted to be able to cover illness, retirements, injury, etc., without a big overtime number," added the Chief.
Chief Elmasian was asked if the recent hiring process was similar to past situations. "The process was relatively the same. "I want to clarify something. The lowering of scores was not intended for any gender, race or group. It was done strictly across the board. This occurred here in City Hall with Human Resources because a percentage of scores didn't pass," stated the Chief.
"Has this been done before," asked Botelho. "Since I've been chief, this has not been done (score lowering). I believe it has been done in prior years though," said Elmasian.
"This case is an aberration," said Mayor Briden. "I haven't seen anything like this before. They need an attorney." "I haven't either," chimed in Botelho. Botelho asked Dias why the term city staff is being used. "Do we need to have a special hearing to discuss names? We asked the city manager last meeting and he handed it off to you (Dias). Now you're giving it to him. This is all legal symantecs, like Abbott and Costello 'who's on first," quipped Botelho.
At this point the usually reserved Tim Chapman seemed visually rattled. Looking at Botelho, Chapman asked him why you didn't ask the HR Director these questions. Looking out at Chief Elmasian, Chapman said "Chief, You brought up the worst case scenario. I understand you're understaffed by three right now. You failed to give us the minimum amount for overtime. We talked about this," said a stern Chapman. Elmasian returned to the podium and differed with the manager. "I gave you a worst case if this takes until September and I gave you a best case which would cost us about two months overtime," replied the Chief.
"I asked the Chief because he runs the fire department," Botelho replied to Chapman. "Would you like the HR Director here, I'll bring her here," said Chapman.
"Why isn't she (HR Director Kathleen Waterbury) here," asked councilwoman Anna Sousa. "Because nobody asked her," said Chapman. "Knowing this pertinent issue, it's almost like she is hiding," said Sousa. "You want her here, I'll bring her here." "I did ask at the last meeting where she was," said Sousa. "I can't ask her, right? You have to," added Sousa.
In the end, Brian Faria's motion was passed by a 5-0 vote to ask the personnel hearing board to schedule a meeting and re-visit their prior actions to not certify a list of applicants. The council also wants the board's minutes from their meetings. It is unclear at this time if the hearing board will agree. "These are positions that lots of people want to be appointed to," said Faria. "Well they need to be responsible for their actions. I'm glad my motion passed to send this back to them for review."