Mayor Robert J. Dolan is at odds with the Melrose firefighters union over his proposal to fill a long-vacant assistant chief post outside the state’s civil service system for public employees.
“We’re not opposed to their being an assistant chief,” said Lieutenant Dan White, president of Melrose Association of Fire Fighters Local 1617. “But we don’t want them to fund it by taking a captain’s position. . . . We’d be losing a union member. That’s our problem.”
Dolan countered that the assistant chief’s position should operate outside union rules. “I understand the union’s position, but I disagree with them,” Dolan said in an interview. “I believe you need to have [an assistant chief] who is not in the union, that a chief can confide in about the day-to-day operations.”
With the exception of Fire Chief Christopher Leary, who was appointed in May, all 55 members of the department are in the firefighters union. “The feeling of most of my members is that we don’t need this position at this time,” White said.
Dolan filed a request with the Board of Aldermen to remove the assistant chief’s job from civil service, and to seek a home rule petition from the Legislature, whose approval is required for the change. Aldermen last month voted to table the matter, at the request of the firefighters union.
“We wanted more time to discuss it with the city, before they went ahead and just pushed it through,” White said.
The union and city officials have met to discuss their positions, but have not started formal negotiations. A first meeting was held July 6, but a second meeting probably won’t be held until after Labor Day.
“We are going to keep talking,” Dolan said.
Although allowed by city ordinance, the assistant chief’s position hasn’t been filled since the 1940s. Instead, the department is run by the chief and seven captains. Six captains lead a group on a shift, and a seventh runs the fire prevention office. Over the years, the city has tried, without success, to alter the structure by reviving the assistant chief’s job.
In 2007, the state Joint Labor Management Committee, which mediates disputes between public safety unions and municipalities, advised the city the issue should be settled locally, according to city officials.
Dolan said the city is prepared to make its case to the union. “We don’t have a discipline problem in our fire department,” he said. “Overtime is low. There is no abuse of sick time. Their attitude and work ethic is tremendous. The fact is, the operating structure of the department is not sound. It doesn’t make any sense.”
The current contract requires seven captain positions. One captain’s slot has been vacant since Dolan appointed Leary new fire chief, replacing John O’Brien, who retired in June. Currently, there are no Melrose firefighters on the civil service list awaiting promotion to captain, Dolan said.
The mayor wants to eliminate the captain’s position, and use the savings to fund the assistant chief’s job. Dolan and Leary have agreed the job should be filled by Captain Ed Collina, who was a finalist for the chief’s job.
“We look at this as another chance to promote from within,” Dolan said.
At the July 16 aldermen’s meeting, Leary called the move to hire an assistant chief “the first step of many” to reorganize the fire department. He noted the city must “bargain with the local [union] the impact of the proposed change.”
An agreement with the city states that if the number of captains falls below seven, the office of fire prevention must close, and it did on July 27, with the duties split among the six captains. The union is concerned that situation would remain if a new assistant chief’s job is created, White said.
“Most of our guys know how to do fire inspections, but we believe [fire prevention] should be centralized,” White said. “We saw a rough draft of the duties of the assistant chief, and it didn’t say anything about fire prevention. . . . We think it’s a pretty important function.”