Acting HR Director Approved Lower Score for Fire Fighter Exam
In an email to staff in the Human Resource Department at East Providence City Hall, former Acting HR Director Raymond Benoit writes, "I approved the passing score of 65 for the Fire Fighter written exam in order to comply with the City Affirmative Action Plan per Elmer's (Elmer Pina, Affirmative Action Officer) recommendation...Go ahead and release the scores to the candidates with the 65 pass point."
The email copy obtained by The Reporter doesn't list a date but applicants received a notice about the 65% passing score on or about October 5, 2016. Benoit, a former HR Director for the City, had been filling in for suspended Director Kathleen Waterbury. Although Benoit's email indicates he was setting the passing score to 65% from the earlier threshold of 70% based on Pina's recommendation, it has been learned that Pina was only asked to endorse the process. The initial move to lower the score came from the HR Department.
The Reporter has further learned that the passing grade was set below 70% because more than half of the applicants may not have reached 70%. The across the board lowering of the score was meant as a "precaution" to ensure a higher number of passing scores. Reportedly, ethnicity, gender, etc., was not a consideration as applicants were only identified by ID number.
Passing score levels for different positions have been adjusted in prior years in order to meet provisions of Affirmative Action laws. This does not seem to be the case with this group of applicants. Fire department officials have said that applicant passing grades have not been lowered in the past three years, but may have been adjusted in years past.
At the recent city council meeting on February 21, 2017, Fire Chief Oscar Elmasian said that passing grade changes for fire applicants were not related in any way to ethnic or gender groups. "I get annoyed when certain groups are blamed," he said. It was changed "across the board" for all applicants. However applicants had already received information relative to a 70% passing level only to be told it was being reduced to 60%. "This was done at the HR department, not the fire department," said the Chief.
It is undetermined at this point if an acting department head would make a decision to change a previously announced applicant passing grade without upper management approval. The reason why the passing grade was changed has remained officially unclear.
HR Director Waterbury was reinstated to her position and recently sent all applicants for vacant fire department positions a letter. In that letter dated January 19, 2017, Waterbury states, "I am writing to inform you that at the January 17, 2017 East Providence Hearing Board meeting, the Board did not certify the lists for Firefighters. The Board, under their full and irrevocable authority made the determination that due to several process errors that it was in the best interest of the applicants and the City to redo the fire recruitment process. Due to the large number of applicants...do not call the HR Department but wait for the email as it will answer all of your questions. The City of East Providence sincerely apologizes..." - Kathleen Waterbury, HR Director.
The Personnel Hearing Board has scheduled a meeting for Friday, February 24, 2017 at 3:45 p.m. in City Hall Conference Room A. They will be looking at various lists of positions to certify. It is not known if the Board will specifically re-visit the Fire Fighter exam controversy as requested by the city council. The three member board includes residents Wendy Caputo, Joanne Estrella and Domenic Pontarelli.
Acting City Manager Tim Chapman, former HR Director Raymond Benoit and Affirmative Action Officer Elmer Pina were unavailable for comment.