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Acting Boston fire commissioner’s actions questioned

Acting Fire Commissioner John Hasson was a deputy chief.

Aram Boghosian for the Globe

Acting Fire Commissioner John Hasson was a deputy chief.

Mayor Martin J. Walsh’s pick for acting fire commissioner has swiftly reorganized the management structure of the Boston Fire Department and is helping to disband a team of civilians hired to push through changes, said four officials with knowledge of the shake-up in the department.

Days after Walsh installed John Hasson, the new acting commissioner began elevating deputy fire chiefs to the management team and eliminating duties assigned to at least two civilian deputy commisioners who had helped overhaul the department.

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Hasson’s actions are alarming some city watchdog groups, who worry that they signal that the Walsh administration is backing off from what they say are much needed changes to cut costs and improve efficiency in the Fire Department.

“We’re going backwards in a department that definitely needs reform,’’ said Samuel R. Tyler, president of the Boston Municipal Research Bureau, a fiscal watchdog group that has long advocated broad changes in the Fire Department. “The deputy chiefs are now back in charge.”

When Walsh took office Jan. 6, he named Hasson, a 41-year veteran of the department and a longtime union member, to be acting commissioner to replace Roderick J. Fraser Jr.

Fraser, who announced his resignation in December, was a civilian appointed by Mayor Thomas M. Menino with a mission of taking on the Boston Firefighters Local 718 over policy changes and dislodging what was widely seen by critics as an entrenched culture that resisted change.

His stormy seven-year tenure was marked by controversy, but watchdog groups generally praised him for making strides.

‘I’m trying to make the department better than what it has been.’

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Walsh said Hasson’s assignment is temporary and that he intends to continue to seek change in the department.

But critics worry that Hasson could undo seven years of change. Since his appointment, two deputy commissioners, Kathleen Kirleis, head of administration and finance; and Justin Brown, head of planning and organizational development, submitted resignation letters after some of their duties were reassigned and it appeared that changes they were hired to push through would be taking a back seat, said the four officials with knowledge of the recent shake-up. Another of Fraser’s deputy commissioners, Karen Glasgow, stepped down in October to take a job with the School Department. The departures mean that a team of reform-minded managers in the Fire Department has either left or is leaving.

“I think that the mayor should be concerned that even in this interim appointment, the reforms can be undone,’’ said Gregory W. Sullivan, former state inspector general, who is research director for the conservative think tank Pioneer Institute.

Walsh said he intends to continue reforms on the fire force and institute “cultural changes’’ in the department. He also promised greater accountability and transparency.

“I think we still need to continue reform in the Fire Department, just as we did in the Police Department,’’ said Walsh. “There is room for growth in every area.”

Walsh said he is seeking a permanent fire commissioner with a proven track record in building relationships with the command staff, as well as the nonuniform managers on the force.

He added that he intends to keep the current management structure, but is considering whether one person should serve as both fire chief and fire commissioner.

“Ultimately, my goal is that we will have the best public safety departments and the best credibility in the city,’’ Walsh said.

Hasson, 63, was the longest-serving deputy chief on the command staff and is less than two years from retiring.

“I’m honored Walsh put me in this position,’’ said Hasson. “I’m trying to make the department better than what it has been.”

Hasson is currently paid $163,200 as acting fire chief, and Walsh is considering whether Hasson should be paid the acting commissioner’s salary of $174,200, the mayor’s office said. Walsh said Hasson will not be paid for both positions.

Hasson said his recent changes are intended to create a management team that is more inclusive of both nonuniform fire personnel and deputy chiefs. In the past administration, Hasson said, the deputy chiefs felt they were cut out of major administrative decisions in the department.

“We had a management team that was part of the administration, and they made all the decisions,’’ said Hasson. “The deputy chiefs were isolated from any decision making. I’m changing that, so that we are all included.”

The deputy commissioners were assembled by Fraser to help usher in an era of change after Menino hired him as part of a push for overhauls recommended in a series of critical studies of department practices.

The civilian team bickered fiercely with deputy chiefs, but implemented critical reforms, such as drug testing, after it was discovered that the two firefighters killed in 2007 West Roxbury blaze may have had drugs in their system. Fraser also revamped the fleet maintenance division, with new trucks and trained mechanics, after a 2009 accident in which a firetruck’s brakes failed and it hurtled down a hill, killing a firefighter.

After Menino left office, Fraser indicated that he wanted to stay on as commissioner. But with no assurance from Walsh, he resigned and left the job on Jan. 6.

Hasson said he was “caught off guard” by the resignation of Kirleis, but he saw no future for Brown in the department. He said Brown had no involvement in training and was not a part of the new, massive computer aid dispatch system.

“That’s why that position is being eliminated,’’ said Hasson.

Boston Firefighters Local 718 endorsed Walsh for mayor, doled out big money for the campaign, and union members went out in droves to knock on doors, hand out fliers, and urge friends and family to vote for Walsh.

On the campaign trail, Walsh promised a review of every city department, but said he would not shutter firehouses or reconfigure personnel to trim costs. Walsh also said that since fire union members have both leadership and rank-and-file roles, he saw no problem with having most of the department in the union.

Walsh also has other issues with which to contend in the Fire Department. The city is set to resume contract talks this month with the union, which is seeking a pay increase to bring salaries in line with those of police officers. Union leaders have been criticized for dragging their feet during contract talks to get their issues before an arbitrator, who usually sides with labor.

In his previous role as chief of operations, Hasson was part of the city contract negotiating team. But Walsh said Hasson will no longer be involved in those talks. “I intend to be at the table,’’ Walsh said. “He will not be part of the talks. I can pretty much guarantee that.”

Meghan E. Irons can be reached at meghan.irons@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @meghanirons.
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