The Boston Fire Department has long been a power unto itself. Despite several studies detailing the need to reform and modernize the department, the tradition-bound institution has stubbornly resisted big change. Some problems spring from the fact that the entire uniformed command staff, save for the chief of department, belongs to Boston Firefighters Local 718, the same union that represents the rank-and-file. Another problem: The union knows that if the firefighters hold out long enough in contract negotiations, the outstanding issues will be decided by binding arbitration, a process that often leans toward labor.
Last week, I asked most of the mayoral hopefuls three questions about the department. 1) Would they appoint an independent commission, or hire a consulting firm, to do a comprehensive review of the department, from staffing levels to stations to salaries and benefits? 2) Do they think having the uniformed command staff and rank-and-file firefighters in the same union makes sense? 3) Would they try to reform the current binding arbitration process?
Plus, a bonus query: Would they adopt the Boston Municipal Research Bureau's proposal to randomly choose one department per year for a thorough review by a firm experienced in performance evaluation? Good news there: Almost every candidate either liked that keep-them-on-their-toes idea or said they wanted stem-to-stern performance reviews of all city departments.
So who seems most serious about fire department reform? My top tier: Bill Walczak, Dan Conley, and Charlotte Golar Richie. Walczak, the Codman Square civic leader, will release a policy statement on the Fire Department today, a statement that nods to the department's proud history but is also candid about its resistance to reform and both detailed and determined about bringing the department into compliance with national standards.
Last week, Walczak gave me matter-of-fact answers to my queries — and then called to underscore his resolve. His responses: Yes to an independent review panel; no, it doesn't make sense to have almost all the command staff in 718; yes on re-examining the binding arbitration process, which he said "seems to lean toward labor rather than management."
Conley, the no-nonsense Suffolk County DA, was first in with his answers, which he himself e-mailed. Yes to a review commission, said Conley, adding: "The key will be follow-up . . . to implement recommended reforms." Deputy chiefs shouldn't be in the same union as the rank-and-file, he said, because that structure can put the command staff at odds with the commissioner. Although Conley said he understands the reason for binding arbitration — firefighters can't, by law, strike — he would review it for possible changes.
As for Richie, the former state representative wants a top-to-bottom review of every department; said she would make "every effort within my authority" to change the one-union-fits-all structure of the department; and she noted that binding arbitration should take fuller account of the city's ability to pay an arbitrator's award.
The two would-be mayors who struck me as most lukewarm on reform? State Representative Marty Walsh, 718's endorsed candidate, and Councilor Felix Arroyo. Walsh, whose camp required two follow-up queries before giving an unqualified yes on appointing a review panel, said that since the firefighters local has both a leadership and a rank-and-file division, he saw no problem with having almost the entire department in the union. He also rejected the notion that binding arbitration lessened the public-safety unions' incentives to negotiate seriously.
Arroyo said yes to a review panel, but called the one-union arrangement a matter "of collective bargaining rights," and sidestepped the query on arbitration.
And what of the others? Although he backs the current binding arbitration process, City Councilor John Connolly otherwise seemed intent on pursuing reform. He would appoint a panel and is not comfortable with a one-union department. Dudley Street neighborhood dynamo John Barros also belongs in the ready-to-reform category.
Two other hopefuls — City Councilors Rob Consalvo and Mike Ross — seemed as intent on finessing my queries as on answering them concretely. Consalvo said he would do a top-to-bottom review of every department, "including the BFD," and would look at each department's leadership structure and management/labor balance as part of those reviews. He doesn't think the current binding-arbitration process reduces incentives to negotiate seriously.
Initially, Ross didn't answer either of the first two questions directly. When I followed up, his camp said he "would be willing" to establish a reform panel, but remained vague on the one-union arrangement. Ross does, however, support reforming the arbitration process.
So far, the fire department hasn't been a major campaign issue. Given the department's importance to the city, it's a subject the candidates need to take on forthrightly. Fortunately, some would-be mayors seem willing to do just that.