At the April 25 City Council regular meeting, there was a presentation and extensive discussion of the Administration's planned use of lateral hires to fill new positions in our Fire Department to staff the forthcoming Assembly Square fire station. This presentation originally was scheduled for the March 28 regular meeting, but the council tabled the item to allow for more time to review the communication from the Administration. Then two weeks ago, the council took up the issue, with Ward 1 Councilor Matt McLaughlin giving a presentation on the history of firefighter hiring before we heard from firefighters about their opposition to lateral hires and expressed our own opposition going this route. 

Assembly Square Fire Station staffing presentation

If you're unfamiliar with the issue, here's a quick primer:

Somerville participates in the Civil Service for police and fire, meaning that both potential new hires and promotion candidates take Civil Service examinations and then the City is given a ranked list when we go to hire or promote. A candidate can be bypassed to go on to the next candidate on the list only if there is a compelling reason to do so, and a municipality is required under Civil Service to interview 2n+1 as many candidates as there are slots to be filled. This means if you are hiring three firefighters, you need to interview seven people on the Civil Service list. And if you are hiring 12 firefighters (as is the case here), you will need to interview a minimum of 25 individuals on the list -- and more if the updated list the City gets has ties between candidates around 25th place.

This is a complicated process by nature, as it's designed to prevent the sort of corruption that could plague hiring for these positions in the past, when one often had to know someone or be related to someone to get one of these jobs. Up until last year, Somerville was approved by the state to use police and fire reserve lists. These reserve lists allowed the City to effectively "pre-hire" a candidate and take from that list before hiring from the Civil Service list. Last spring, in another safeguard against corruption, the City Council rescinded both the fire and police reserve lists after exhausting those lists as promised.

The Administration now is claiming that without the ability to use the reserve lists, they can't hire 12 firefighters in advance of a known need, as is the case here. The part of this I'm struggling to understand is that we're also hearing that now that there isn't sufficient time to hire from the list for the 12 upcoming vacancies because of the time required to interview 25 candidates -- or 34 candidates as the case may be because of candidates tied on the list. 

Last Thursday night, the Administration explained their plans to do lateral hires. The information presented raised a number of questions for me, and I asked those questions of the panel on hand.

We were shown a slide with a lengthy, 16-step hiring process for Civil Service list candidates, clearly intended to portray the process as long and onerous. But when I asked which of the steps wouldn't be necessary if we did lateral hires, we were told only the 15th step involving in-house and academy training.

When I asked at what point in the process a potential lateral hire would need to receive approval from their current municipal employer to transfer to Somerville, I was told this approval would be ascertained at the beginning of the lateral hire process. But I'd like to see documentation on when exactly this would happen in the process, as it seems like a potential mine field to navigate and could potentially result in us needing to interview a large number of lateral transfer candidates to end up with 12.

I asked about equity and Civil Service lists -- specifically about other lists Somerville could use. We were told there is one for women who have taken the Civil Service test, and another for speakers of languages other than English. The panel claimed using these lists is extremely complex and fraught with legal peril, but I'd like to hear more about this -- especially if equity is going to be held up as a key benefit to this decision to go the lateral hire route.

Finally, I asked about the impact of H.4520, a bill making its way through Beacon Hill that would reform the Civil Service system. I wanted to know how it might effect both the process of hiring from Civil Service list and the Administration's plans to do lateral hires. There wasn't an answer in the moment, so I'll be watching that closely.

I'll continue voicing my concerns about the Administration's lateral hire plan and making the case for hiring from the Civil Service list. I'm hopeful the Administration reverses course on this, but if they don't I'll stand with my colleagues on the council in opposition.

Jake Wilson


Somerville City Councilor-At-Large (he/him/él)