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City files ‘motion to reconsider’ decision regarding hiring practices

Date: 1/3/2012

Jan. 2, 2012

By G. Michael Dobbs

Managing Editor

SPRINGFIELD — Was Deputy Fire Chief Jerrold Prendergast’s involvement in hiring a group of new firefighters that included his son inappropriate? The Commonwealth’s Civil Service Commission says “yes,” but the city filed a “motion to reconsider” its decision.

The commission released a report on Dec. 15, 2011, that questioned the hiring procedures in the department.

The controversy comes as Fire Commissioner Gary Cassanelli is ending his tenure as the city’s top firefighter. Cassanelli, who entered the department in December of 1976 and became chief in July 1990, will be making Jan. 13 his last day.

Christopher Bowman, chair of the commission, wrote in the report’s conclusion, “Finally, I was struck by the failure of Commissioner Cassanelli and Deputy Prendergast, even in hindsight, to recognize how the review and selection process had been compromised, at a minimum, by the appearance of a conflict of interest. Even after several months to reflect on the course of events, each of them insisted that the process was fair, objective and impartial and gave little indication that they would do things differently in the future to ensure a fair and impartial process.

Bowman continued, “Although I carefully considered the diplomatic closing statement of co-counsel for the Fire Department regarding the Fire Department’s willingness to learn from this process and make improvements going forward, that was outweighed by the unwillingness of Commissioner Cassanelli and Deputy Prendergast to fully recognize how their actions or inactions resulted in a flawed review and selection process that was not fair or impartial.”

A spokesperson for the commission confirmed the motion had been filed on Dec. 27, 2011 to Reminder Publications but could not speak to it because of the on-going legal proceedings.

Bowman wrote in the report, “It is undisputed that Deputy Chief Prendergast’s son was among the candidates seeking to be appointed as a firefighter in the city of Springfield as part of this particular hiring process. To ensure that all candidates were given open consideration, and to remove any appearance of impropriety, Deputy Chief Prendergast should have removed himself from this particular hiring round. Instead, he took partial steps to avoid the appearance of a conflict that only served to complicate the review and selection process. While Deputy Chief Prendergast verbally disclosed the perceived conflict of interest to the Fire Commissioner and removed himself from the interviews of his son, he played an active role in other decisions that directly impacted his son’s candidacy.

“First, Deputy Chief Prendergast interviewed two candidates that were tied with his son on a certification of names of individuals willing to accept appointment as a firefighter. He recommended that they not be appointed. While I accept his testimony that he did not know, at the time, that these candidates were tied with his son, he failed to take the necessary steps to rectify this problem when he discovered it several weeks later. At a minimum, those candidates should have been re-interviewed by a fair and impartial interview panel that did not include Deputy Prendergast.

“Second, Deputy Chief Prendergast completed the background checks for his son and 13 candidates tied with his son on the same certification referenced above for two unanticipated vacancies. Based on these background checks, he decided that only seven of these candidates (including his son) should be considered and interviewed. Two of these candidates were the same individuals (referenced above) that Deputy Prendergast had already interviewed and not recommended for appointment, reducing the number of candidates under consideration for two additional vacancies to five. He should have played no role in these background investigations and he should not have decided which of the tied candidates would — or would not — be interviewed. Deputy Prendergast’s testimony that the background check decisions were simply formulaic and objective was unpersuasive. For example, the individual identified [in the report] as Tied But Not Selected Candidate 3 appears to have a distinguished career in the military, several years of continuous service for a local non-profit, three years of attending courses at [the University of Massachusetts] Amherst and is fluent in Spanish. It appears that Deputy Prendergast eliminated this candidate, who was tied with his son, from consideration based on his driving record. This was a subjective judgment call made solely by Deputy Prendergast, as was the decision by Deputy Prendergast that his son’s recent speeding ticket did not eliminate him from contention.

“Third, Deputy Prendergast failed to schedule interviews for two candidates willing to accept appointment solely because they were on active military duty. In one case, he failed to even consider him. Even if I accept that the Fire Department intended all along to hire 21 firefighters in addition to candidate(s) that were to be transferred from another department, the decision not to fully consider these two active military duty candidates had a direct impact on whether the Fire Department had two (2) vacancies as of mid-November 2010, one of which was filled by Deputy Prendergast’s son.

“Beyond the three actions cited above, the substance of which are generally not disputed by Deputy Prendergast and the Fire Department, there is strong circumstantial evidence to suggest other improprieties in the process that tipped the scales in favor of appointing Deputy Chief Prendergast’s son over other candidates, including the chain of events that allegedly occurred on Nov. 30, 2010, the last day upon which Deputy Prendergast’s son was eligible for appointment.

“Deputy Prendergast testified that, in order to avoid any conflict of interest, he approached a Deputy Fire Chief and Fire Captain and asked them to interview the five candidates, including his son, that he had deemed eligible for an interview. Although the documents submitted indicate that only four candidates were interviewed, and that all four were interviewed on Nov. 30, 2010, the two interview panelists were uncertain (at best) if those interviews occurred on Nov. 30. Although both panelists acknowledged meeting with counsel for the Fire Department and Deputy Prendergast to refresh their memory regarding the timeline of events in preparation for their testimony, they were unable to unequivocally confirm that the interviews took place and, if so, whether they took place on Nov. 30. Deputy Prendergast’s testimony only added to the eyebrow-raising circumstances regarding these interviews, including his testimony that he couldn’t remember who set up these Nov. 30 interviews, including his son’s interview.

“Even if these interviews took place, presumably all during the morning of Nov. 30, the testimony and documents raised serious questions as to whether Fire Commissioner Cassanelli completed a fair, thorough and objective review of the candidates interviewed during the afternoon of Nov. 30. An email exchange from Human Resource Department to Deputy Prendergast strongly suggests that no such review took place prior to the close of business on Nov. 30. Even if such a review did take place during the afternoon of Nov. 30, it was tainted by the above-referenced actions taken by Deputy Prendergast.”

Fire Department spokesperson Dennis Ledger said he could not comment on the report but issued the following statement from Cassanelli: “On Dec. 15, 2011, the Civil Service Commission issued a decision critical of a recent selection process conducted by the Springfield Fire Department. The decision criticized the department for its hiring practices for new hires. The thrust of this criticism was that Deputy Chief Jerrold Prendergast was involved in the hiring process and that his son was an applicant for the position of firefighter. Deputy Chief Prendergast is the deputy chief for Administration in the Fire Department.

“Deputy Chief Prendergast’s normal responsibility is to administer the civil service list for all new hires. Deputy Prendergast did not interview or appoint his son to the Springfield Fire Department [SFD]. Deputy Prendergast disclosed to Fire Commissioner Cassanelli that his son was a candidate. He participated in the process up to the point where it became apparent that his on might be reached in the selection process on a very long list of candidates and then recused himself. His son was one of 21 appointments by Springfield Fire Commissioner Gary Cassanelli following the appropriate civil service rules. Deputy Chief Prendergast repeatedly sought advice from the Commonwealth of Massachusetts Human Resources Division to ensure compliance with their rules and regulation. Candidates that were bypassed and not selected were disqualified for a number of reasons that the department has repeatedly used over the years, including poor work histories, poor driving records and felony convictions.

“I very much disagree with the opinion of Chairman Bowman regarding his review of the Springfield Fire Department’s 2010 firefighter hiring process.

“As the appointing authority for the SFD, my hiring decisions have always ensured that the SFD adheres to the basic merit principles including that all applicants and employees are treated fairly and are protected from arbitrary and capricious actions. To date, there have never been any political influences or objectives unrelated to merit that guided my decision to hire firefighters.”

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