The Massachusetts Civil Service Commission blasted City of Methuen officials for the handling of promotions in the fire department and passing over female Firefighter Tracy Blanchette, for a captain’s promotion calling the city’s actions “intolerable” and “extraordinary”.
Civil Service Commissioner Cynthia A. Ittleman admonished every level of Methuen city government in the “flawed process” of promoting firefighters saying that there was “compelling evidence of favoritism, bias, undue subjectivity, and inconsistent practices.”
At issue, Firefighter Blanchette was passed over after the candidates for promotion were given a subjective interview that the commission says was designed to put aside the scores of the Civil Service exam and give the interview scoring process more weight.
This was never done before, in fact, the Commission pointed out that Chief Sheehy himself was promoted at lower ranks without going through an interview process.
The Commission said they believe that this newly constructed “interview process” was designed to favor the Fire Chief’s lifelong friend and former employer, Matthew Tulley. Blanchette scored first on the Civil Service Exam while Tulley scored third.
“Due to the City’s failure to provide valid reasons for bypassing Firefighter Blanchette and numerous indications that the City’s stated bypass reason was pretextual (covering up the favoritism working against her), the Commission is allowing Blanchette’s appeal.”
“…the evidence shows that Methuen’s decision was based on the use of a highly subjective and flawed interview process intended to nullify the results of the Assessment Center in order to effectuate a predetermined decision to select a candidate favored by the Fire Chief as a matter of personal, not professional, preference, as well as to not disturb the MFD’s male-dominated culture. This selection process was not conducted on a level playing field and violates basic merit principles of civil service law.”
THE CITY MUST ACT – A 4th CAPTAIN?
The Commission ruled that the city must promote Firefighter Blanchette to the rank of captain with back pay and other financial benefits retroactive back to the date she was passed over for promotion (February of 2019).
“However …The City may choose to create another Captain or similar civil service supervisory position acceptable to Blanchette, so long as the benefits and compensation associated with said position are commensurate with what Blanchette would have earned had she assumed the vacant Captain’s position in February of 2019.”
The Civil Service Commission decision will not take full effect until January 18, 2022. The city must report back by January 3rd as to their decision.
COUNCILOR’S CONFLICT OF INTEREST
The Commission took particular note of the fact that Methuen City Councilor Jim McCarty had a conflict of interest and yet voted for Matthew Tulley’s promotion to captain.
“Tulley is related by marriage to Methuen City Councilor James McCarty (who voted in the affirmative on Tulley’s promotion to Captain): Tulley’s brother is married to McCarty’s mother. Former long-time Methuen Mayor and City Councilor William Manzi is one of Tulley’s cousins.”
The Commission not only rapped McCarty but the entire city council.
“Likewise, the City Council never investigated Blanchette’s complaint. It approved the promotion of Tulley on February 4, 2019, after receiving Appellant’s detailed complaint of gender discrimination. The Council never asked a single question of Chief Sheehy during its meeting and Councilor McCarty voted in favor of Tulley without even mentioning his family relationship with the Intervenor.”
A PURPOSELY FLAWED PROCESS
Commissioner Cynthia A. Ittleman spared no harsh words for the City of Methuen.
“In sum, I can remember no other example of the use of a post-Assessment Center promotional process that was as flawed as this one, relying solely on a unrecorded, stale post-certification interviews, with little credibility, conducted more than a year earlier for the purpose of a prior promotional appointment, and in which the evidence permits a convincing inference that the process was manipulated by the Fire Chief to bypass the Appellant because the Chief was predisposed to a favor lower-ranked candidate.44 For this reason alone, the Appellant’s appeal must be allowed; but there is, in fact, a second reason for the Commission to intervene.”
She further stated, “So, against this whole backdrop, the City asks the Commission to agree that it has carried its burden to prove—by credible evidence—that it made its decision to bypass Blanchette after a thorough investigation, and upon sound and sufficient reasons. This record does not even come close to justifying the City’s decision.”
Commissioner Ittleman said the Commissions findings “are replete with examples of how the process was fatally flawed. The City Hall panel was not independent, nor did they seem at all chagrined that they were not. Half of the panel had little idea about how to judge the candidates’ technical responses, and candidly admitted that they simply did what they were told to do by Chief Sheehy and Asst. Chief Barry.”
“The process lacked objective criteria with, in particular, no grading scale describing what type of responses would receive a given range of scores. The interviews were not recorded and the process was devoid of any accurate record of what actually took place during the interviews. The panelists often did not know the meaning of their own notes, could not discern reasons for particular scores, often differed on what and how questions were phrased, and speculated about responses. Given the unreliability of this interview process, the Commission must closely scrutinize how it unfolded, particularly when the City is setting aside the results of an independently performed, objective assessment center and given the indicia of favoritism and bias present in this case.”
Chief Sheehy could not be reached for comment.