Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Mansfield Chief Search Too Limited

This column originally appeared in The Sun Chronicle on Monday, March 18, 2013

By Bill Gouveia

Congratulations are in order to Mansfield Police Sgt. Ronald Sellon who was recently chosen to be that town’s next Chief of Police when current Chief Arthur O’Neill retires at the end of this month.

The new chief is a veteran member of the local department, and brings tremendous experience and expertise to his new position. Being familiar with the department and the personnel, he will no doubt be able to hit the ground running and make the transition a smooth one.

Town Manager William Ross had the important task of making the appointment. He said he conducted an extensive process including interviews with the candidates and other law enforcement officials, as well as a full day of assessment center activities provided by an outside source. He noted the difficulty in making a choice from among the finalists.

But with all due respect to the three in-house candidates, by its very nature the search was quite a bit less than “extensive”. That is not to say the best possible candidate wasn’t chosen, but it is asking the relatively simple question: “How can you know that for sure, when you really didn’t look?”

Mansfield is a Civil Service department, and the chief’s position is governed by that body and those regulations. Mansfield’s “search” for police chief candidates never went beyond the halls of its own police station. The reason is – at least largely – because it is almost impossible to do so when working within the arcane, obsolete and unfair restrictions and guidelines of Civil Service.

Most people agree that when searching for a town manager, police chief, fire chief or other skilled local position, it makes sense to give some preference to in-house candidates. After all, they have working knowledge of your system. You no doubt have invested money in training them. In many cases, they are residents and taxpayers in your community. It not only fair to give them some type of advantage in the search process, but it is beneficial to the citizenry to do so.

When searching for a town manager, Mansfield conducted a truly comprehensive search. They did not limit themselves to managerial candidates currently working within the government. As a result they hired Ross, an outsider who has won considerable praise for his performance. They have conducted similar searches over the years – with varying degrees of success – for other positions such as school superintendent, town treasurer, and other professional jobs.

But when it comes to picking police and fire chiefs, Mansfield – like so many other towns – allows itself to be virtually restricted to those they currently employ. Because the town accepts the provisions of Civil Service, it must also accept an inferior search process and rules which are so slanted towards employees and against management as to be almost laughable in today’s world.

Conducting a search beyond those currently working for the town is not in any way disrespectful to those employees. They should always be given fair and perhaps even more than equal opportunity to win these coveted positions. But is is just plain wrong and unfair to local citizens to run a closed search, where the results are rigged to limit the candidates before the process even begins.

It is entire likely that even if a search across Massachusetts or New England was conducted, the new chief would have come from the in-house candidates. So supporters of that system point to the time and money saved in keeping the search limited and local.

But what do you lose by limiting yourself? You lose the perspective an outside candidate may provide. You lose the opportunity to gain experience other candidates may have picked up from their work in other communities. You unnecessarily shut yourself off from a possibly great pool of choices based upon nothing but geography.

Many towns in this state are not Civil Service. Mansfield officers can apply there to be chief, but skilled officers from other communities cannot apply for the Mansfield job? It seems silly, because it is.

Civil Service does let you hire outside candidates, but not without tremendous difficulty. Mansfield and other communities would do well to rid themselves of this antiquated and corrupt system.

In the meantime, Mansfield has an excellent new chief despite a search that never left town.

Bill Gouveia is a local columnist and can be emailed at aninsidelook@aol.com and followed on Twitter at @Billinsidelook.

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