It’s not surprising that Springfield mayor Domenic Sarno’s attempt to lower the qualifications for the city’s fire commissioner position has generated some controversy.
Sarno has asked the City Council to amend the ordinance that set those qualifications so that he can hire his preferred candidate, SFD veteran Joseph Conant. While Conant has served as acting commissioner since January, following the retirement of Commissioner Gary Cassanelli, he lacks the experience and academic credentials required by the existing ordinance. Critics—among them, Deputy Chief Jerrold Prendergast, whom Sarno bypassed for the acting commissioner position—say that the city should conduct a national search and that hiring criteria shouldn’t be weakened to accommodate the mayor’s favored candidate. (Prendergast has other things to worry about; the Mass. Civil Service Commission recently ruled that he had improperly disqualified several SFD job applicants competing with his son, who was ultimately hired.) At-large City Councilor Bud Williams, for one, has said that while he has no objections to Conant personally, he believes amending hiring standards to suit a specific candidate sets a “dangerous precedent.”
But Sarno’s effort has also provoked criticism on another level: the Springfield NAACP has objected to what the Rev. Talbert Swan II, branch president, has called the “dumbing down” of the job requirements, which “smack[s] of political favoritism and give[s] the perception of blatant cronyism” and underscores a history of racism within the SFD.
The current fire commissioner qualifications were set by the Finance Control Board imposed on Springfield by the state Legislature in 2004 to oversee the city’s troubled finances. Previously, the fire commissioner needed just a high-school diploma; the Control Board changed the qualifications to require a master’s degree as well as seven years’ experience as a deputy chief. Sarno would like a revised ordinance requiring an associate’s degree and two years’ deputy chief experience. Conant has an associate’s degree and is working on his bachelor’s.
Swan was out of the country and unavailable for comment at deadline. In a letter sent to Sarno last month, Swan wrote that the mayor’s attempt to change the job requirements to allow Conant’s hiring amounts to an example of unfairness and favoritism within the SFD, and within our society at large. “Far too often, member[s] of the majority community have enjoyed the privilege of unearned advantages, which has a negative impact on our society,” he wrote.
Swan also argued that reducing the position’s academic requirements runs counter to the widely embraced notion of education as “the great equalizer.”
“Every individual, regardless of his or her circumstance, should be able to attain the American Dream through education,” he wrote. “While this belief has not always been implemented throughout our history, there are individuals that have overcome obstacles and their circumstances through education to become productive citizens and trailblazers. … This striving for excellence and the acquisition of as many qualifications as possible is not only good for an individual but for society as a whole; the more qualified contributing members of society there are undoubtedly benefits all.”
Sarno’s attempt to lower the commissioner qualifications “smacks of nepotism and sends the wrong message to the entire city,” Swan wrote. “Will people view this policy as a reason to focus less on academic achievement and qualifications and more on posturing for political favors when seeking city employment? Will the rules be changed to accommodate candidates of color competing for high-level positions within the city, which they do not meet the qualifications for?”
The SFD, Swan wrote, has a history of “structural and institutional racism.” He noted the findings of a 2005 consultant’s report, commissioned by the Control Board, that called for the hiring of more women and minorities. The report also referred to sexist and racist incidents that had occurred in the department—including “defacing a female bathroom wall and the use of the ‘N’ word”—which, the consultants wrote, were not addressed appropriately. “While these particular themes appear to be related to a small number of personnel, such actions have no place in any workplace, let alone government service,” the report said. “These actions should not be tolerated, and people involved in these alleged actions should be asked to seek other employment. Those supervisory personnel who take no action should also be held accountable.”
The Advocate contacted Sarno’s office for the mayor’s response to the NAACP letter. The mayor declined to address the specifics of the letter, instead forwarding a prepared statement reiterating the reasons behind his request.
“At this time, I do not feel that the provision of the ordinance requiring a master’s degree is necessary because we have such a highly qualified individual who possesses hands-on experience,” Sarno’s statement read. He went on to outline Conant’s resume—which includes a stint in the Marines and several promotions over his 25 years in the SFD—and to praise his performance, particularly in the aftermath of the various weather catastrophes that have hit the city over the past 18 months. “Specifically, after the June 1st  tornado Joe demonstrated a strong commitment to ensuring the public safety of our City’s residents and to the men and women of the Springfield Fire Department,” Sarno said. “His leadership abilities helped the Fire Department communicate very important, and in some cases life-saving information to residents impacted by these disasters.”
The mayor also praised Conant for “strong budgetary and administrative decisionmaking skills, especially during these challenging economic times, and a strong command and respect of the rank and file of the Springfield Fire Department.”
Last week, the City Council’s public health and safety committee voted, 2 to 0, in support of Sarno’s request. (At-large Councilor Tom Ashe and Ward 6 Councilor Ken Shea cast the two votes; the committee’s third member, Ward 1’s Zaida Luna, was not present.) At that meeting, the Springfield Republican’s Jack Flynn later reported, Conant denied that he was benefiting from personal or political ties to Sarno, saying he’s only known the mayor for a couple of years.
The matter could come to a full vote at the Council’s Dec. 17 meeting. At-large Councilor Tim Rooke told the Advocate he’ll vote for the change, saying that he was impressed by Conant’s response to the city’s recent weather crises and the Nov. 23 gas leak explosion on Worthington Street. “Leaders are not born, and leaders are not made in any written ordinance. Leaders rise to the occasion,” said Rooke, adding that Conant is well respected within the SFD.
And in the end, Rooke contends, the Council’s vote is a moot point; the mayor, not councilors, has ultimate authority over the city’s police and fire commissioners. “We can say whatever we like, but it carries no weight,” Rooke said. “The mayor has clearly indicated this is his candidate of choice.”•