Lowering the Bar in Springfield

Last month Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno proposed lowering the city’s qualifying standard for hiring a fire commissioner as he sought to place current acting Commissioner Joseph Conant into the job permanently. This past week, he followed that up by asking the Springfield City Council to change the city’s ordinance to accommodate him.

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The current standard – which a Republican article on the mayor’s push said required a master’s degree and at least seven years of experience as a deputy, or the equivalent rank, was put in place by the Springfield Finance Control Board back in 2006. The Mayor is proposing the standards be lowered at least to allow for Conant’s background to qualify, which would be an associate’s degree in a fire science-related field and only two years experience as a deputy or the equivalent rank.

Perhaps it’s true that Acting Commissioner Conant is a good leader, and he may very well also be the popular choice for the position of permanent fire commissioner. But does the Mayor’s proposal truly make Springfield a better, safer place? Is Conant really the best man for the fire commissioner’s job, or are we just settling for a comfortable known quantity?

And is it truly wise to essentially tell would-be city employees and leaders that no matter what their qualification, as long as they’re popular, exceptions can be made for them?

Nowhere in the above-mentioned Republican article did it mention Conant having made any effort whatsoever to qualify himself for the position by going back to school. In any other industry or job sector, any person seeking to find a job would naturally first see to it that he or she had the proper qualifications to actually get that job.

Not so in the political world, where who you know is, once again, evidently much more important than what you know.

In making his decision, Sarno has made it clear to the residents of Springfield that, in his view, having high standards in place for municipal jobs is an obstacle to the city’s hiring practices. So rather than expect candidates to burnish their credentials and raise their own qualifications, he proposes we instead simply lower our own standards so that we can get “our guys” into the desired positions.

This marks the second time Sarno has sought to detour around objective due course and go instead with his own personal feelings to fill an important position in the city. Back when former Springfield Police Commissioner Edward Flynn resigned and the hunt for a replacement began, then-Mayoral candidate Sarno shunned the Finance Control Board’s determination to go with a nationwide search for a replacement. Instead, he wanted to go with “his guy”, then-Deputy Chief William Fitchet. (The Finance Control Board went with the nationwide search and ended up selecting Fitchet anyway.)

This time around, with the qualification bar again raised too high for his taste, Sarno is once again proposing a go-around route.

The Springfield branch of the NAACP, meanwhile, has added its voice to those opposed to the Mayor’s proposed qualification reduction.

In a letter to the mayor’s Office distributed to the press, the Springfield NAACP President, Pastor Talbert Swan II, stated that the Mayor’s proposal smacked of institutionalized racism.

“The history of the Springfield Fire Department is a picture perfect example of this type of structural and institutional racism,” wrote Swan in his letter. “This notion is borne out by the fact that it took federal intervention to correct discriminatory practices in this public institution.”

Swan went on to write: “While some are fond of calling this a ‘quota system,’ this assertion distorts the reality of the purpose of taking race and sex into account as a legal remedy for specific cases of discriminatory exclusion. […] It is with this in mind that I am particularly appalled by and write in opposition to dumbing down the required qualifications for the position of fire commissioner. Far too often, member[s] of the majority community have enjoyed the privilege of unearned advantages, which has a negative impact on our society.”

Swan has a point. And his assertion that “the majority community have enjoyed the privilege of unearned advantages” could just as easily be narrowed down to the largely unseen establishment elite who continue to influence and run this city with only their own self interests in mind.

“What message does watering down the requirements for the sake of a single preferred candidate send to the rank and file within the fire department, our youth, and city residents?” Swan asked in his letter to the mayor.

It’s a question the City Council and the residents of Springfield themselves should be asking the Mayor, too.

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One Response to Lowering the Bar in Springfield

  1. What does this say to firefighters who have worked and studied in the hope of rising to higher levels in the department?

    November 21, 2012 at 10:16 pm