Solicitor Dias to Investigate Firefighter Hiring Snafu: 190 Applicants to Start Over
By Bob Rodericks
"The Fire Chief runs the Dept., right? Why was his request denied?" - Councilman Joe Botelho, Ward 3.
After a long discussion among themselves and questions from some local residents, the East Providence City Council was rendered helpless in their attempt to remedy why 190 recent firefighter applicants had their test scores thrown out. This included many who had passed the exam with a 70% or higher score. "Because of mistakes in advertising and the lowering of the passing grade from 70% which is against the city charter, the personnel hearing board has decided to not certify a list of recruits," Acting city manager Tim Chapman told the council at its February 7th meeting.
Resident and prominent city businessman Chris Gasbarro told the council that he didn't think the process was very fair. "My daughter's boyfriend was an enthusiastic applicant. He loves this fire department because it is the best. He had many hurdles to establish in a tough 7 month program," said Gasbarro. "He was not a finalist once before, but was glad to make the grade this time. He was totally shocked to get a letter telling him the entire process is now thrown out," added Gasbarro. "We had a lot of candidates, so the advertising must have worked. This person has 7 years experience with ambulance companies and is already an EMT and EMT-C. Do we have to throw everyone out, even those who passed? Can someone tell me what happened," Gasbarro continued.
Gasbarro asked the council that if the score minimum being dropped from 70% to 65% was a problem, why didn't the city just include all candidates who scored 70% and above. In fact other cities have done this including East Providence in prior selections. Clear answers were not readily forthcoming at the meeting.
"My concern is to find out the protocol. Are there minutes from the hearing board meeting, can we have access to those meeting minutes?" asked Ward 1 councilman Bob Britto. "Why are we announcing a new academy today, the day of our council meeting. I know it was advertised all over as at least 50 or 60 organizations besides the press received notice," continued Britto. "If the problem is that scores were dropped, well who approved this? Why did it take so long to do this process if the scores were lowered before last November? I'm asking the city manager (Chapman) to stop advertising and hold up here," pressed Britto. Britto said he was concerned for all of the applicants, including a large group of minorities who entered this academy and are wondering what their status is now.
"This process was commenced in June," answered acting city manager Tim Chapman. "The personnel hearing board had two public hearings on this matter. Anyone could have attended. They decided that an official announcement was not posted in accordance with the ordinance and the minimum score was lowered for candidates after applicants were told that score would be 70%," said Chapman. "This was all done contrary to ordinance 11-64-A. This is a personnel hearing board decision, there is nothing we can do," added Chapman.
Chapman went on to say that the notice was taken out in the Reporter newspaper, "which is not a paper of general circulation in the city," said Chapman. At that point Ward 3 councilman Joe Botelho held up the firefighter ad for recruits which was placed in the Reporter. "Here is that ad. The Reporter is directly sent to everybody in the city," Botelho said. "How is this not general circulation? It goes out to everyone, so the argument of it not getting sent out does not hold water," Botelho added. "I was told by one member of the personnel hearing board that minutes were probably not taken at that meeting. The argument of the passing grade being set, has been done many times in this city."
"Mr. Benoit (Interim HR director Ray Benoit) evidently approved a passing grade of 65 %. The list should have been certified as I see things," said Botelho. "No one has given me an explanation that makes any sense. It's up to the council to fix this."
"The scores cannot be below 70% according to city charter," said Chapman. "Then who approved it?" shot back Britto. "It's a personnel matter and performance matter and can't really be addressed here," continued Chapman. As Chapman directed a comment to city solicitor Greg Dias, Botelho angrily interjected, "Now we're not gonna hide behind that are, we? The taxpayers of this city have heard that excuse - personnel matters - for long enough. They're the ones paying the freight for the extra overtime for this," Botelho said. "You mean to tell me you have never lowered the score before, on anything?" Botelho asked Chapman.
"All I can tell you is that the ordinance says that it cannot be lower than 70%," answered Chapman. "I know you don't like that answer, but that's all I can say," Chapman added.
Chapman said that Fire Chief Oscar Elmasian had asked the personnel board to keep the passing score at 70% which would have allowed a list to be certified. The board denied Elmasian's request, citing improper advertising and the score lowering as reasons to throw out the entire list, in the event of a future legal challenge.
"There have been score changes in the past," Botelho told Chapman. "I'm not going to do it against the charter," maintained Chapman. "Let me say, I've been here before in the 80's and now back again. I've never seen anything like this at all," added Botelho.
"Is the HR director able to speak about this," asked Ward 2 councilwoman Anna Sousa. However director Kathleen Waterbury was not in attendance at the meeting. Department heads are usually required to attend council meetings. "What of the people who scored well. Where do they stand," asked Sousa.
"Here we are several months later, someone knew the scores in September and we're just finding out these problems now. Somewhere there is a disconnect," said Britto. "The current HR director (Waterbury) wasn't here at that time, so someone had to approve this," Britto said.
"Nobody on this council is happy with this," said Ward 4 councilman Brian Faria. "I had a dialogue with the HR director and city manager and have the same answers. It's very sad so I ask our solicitor, what can be done," Faria continued.
"The personnel hearing board had two public meetings. They voted to not certify the lists. That's not something the city manager or council did. Faria pushed the issue on did the hearing board post their meetings but no one could specifically confirm that question. The general opinion was that city boards post their own meetings and may have their own legal counsel.
"Candidates are calling the HR department and are not getting answers. Somewhere along the line, people need answers. Their lives have been on hold for several months," said Britto.
However, in the end the council was not able to stop the process of seeking new candidates. The new academy may not start now until June 5th. "The fire chief made a recommendation to keep the 70% score threshold and certify the current list of applicants, but the personnel hearing board denied his request," Chapman told the council.
"Why did they deny the chief's request? I mean he runs the fire department, right?" asked Botelho pointedly. "I can't answer for them," replied Chapman. "There's just something weird about this whole thing," said Botelho.
As more questions continued on "who" and "why" the process was deemed wrong and answers were not forthcoming, Mayor Briden directed the matter take a legal course. "We need legal to investigate if the hearing board was erroneous. We have to be careful," said Briden.
Although acting city manager Chapman was not in that position in the beginning of this process, "acting city manager Chapman has been here for most of the time," said Britto. "I had nothing to do with this process," maintained Chapman.
"Well it's very disheartening for these applicants. It is a financial burden as they put their lives on hold. I feel tremendously sorry for what has gone on. Where do the people stand who have done well," asked Sousa.
"The process starts new for all applicants," replied Chapman. The only concession is that repeat applicants won't have to pay another $30. application fee.
"The charter gives the council the right to ask questions about city departments and issues. We're asking questions and are not getting any answers," said Botelho. "That's not good."
"You want an investigation done, who are you asking, the solicitor, city manager," Chapman asked Botelho. At that point Mayor Briden interjected that "we need our solicitor to advise us."
In the end, solicitor Greg Dias was asked to review and investigate the matter and advise the council. "We need you to advise us, per the charter, what we can do here," Briden told Dias.
When Dias was asked that would he be investigating who made the decisions in the fire hiring snafu, Dias chose his words carefully, "I will investigate the process," Dias responded.