Massachusetts City Under Fire for Hiring Practices

Posted: 08-02-2009
Updated: 08-02-2009 11:49:12 AM

J.J. Huggins
The Eagle-Tribune, North Andover, Ma.

Aug. 2--METHUEN -- The state Civil Service Commission is already investigating city officials for picking relatives as reserve police officers instead of higher-ranked candidates, some of whom are veterans.

But the Police Department isn't the only place where veterans who are ranked high on the civil service list have been bypassed for jobs.

A highly-recommended city resident who served in the Air Force and is still a member of the Massachusetts Air National Guard was squeezed out as a reserve firefighter by 15 people who fell below her on the civil service list.

Rebecca Ferreira was at the top of the civil service list of people who are qualified to become city firefighters. Since childhood, the 27-year-old mother of two has longed to fight fires. She took the civil service exam and applied to the Methuen Fire Department. She attended an interview with fire officials and the city's human resources director, and thought things went well.

Former fire Chief Clifford Gallant, who retired in June, even said he wanted to hire her.

But city officials passed her over.

People applying for civil service jobs are ranked according to exam scores and whether they served in the military. Of the 15 who were initially chosen, 12 are not veterans, and all of them were ranked lower than Ferreira, according to a review of the civil service list and individual job applications.

When The Eagle-Tribune questioned why the top-scoring Ferreira was not chosen, Mayor William Manzi quickly added her to the reserve firefighter list.

When asked why Ferreira wasn't originally selected, Manzi said, "Maybe it was an oversight on our part. But we're not quite sure about that, to be honest."

Who was chosen

Manzi said those chosen include relatives of firefighters, but he said family ties didn't come into play when selections were made. It's common to see relatives serve together in fire departments around the state, he said.

Manzi also has a relative who was chosen -- his second cousin, Eric Manzi, who works as a security officer at the Seabrook, N.H., nuclear power plant. He is not a veteran and the mayor claims he really doesn't know him.

Mayor Manzi said it was Human Resources Director Colleen McCarthy who recommended Eric Manzi be picked.

"She recommended him and I said OK," the mayor said.

Another non-veteran selected was Daniel Pomerleau, a tree climber for the Methuen Department of Public Works. He is the son-in-law of Kevin Moury, who retired as the public works' superintendent of environmental management in June. Moury is facing jail time after pleading guilty to failing to pay taxes on cash collected at his Salisbury strip club, Kittens Gentlemen's Club.

Pomerleau also applied to be a police officer, but was not chosen. On his application to become a cop, he listed that he has worked in "management" at Kittens since 2003, and that it's a "family business." However, Kittens was omitted from his firefighter application, despite the fact that the application instructed him to list "all employments."

Neither Eric Manzi nor Pomerleau returned calls for comment on their selection and family relationship to city officials.

The mayor denies that he showed any favoritism.

"We conducted an interview process, and we put forth the candidates we thought were best," he said.

When selecting candidates, officials look at civil service exam scores, interview results and qualifications. Of those chosen, one is the manager of the Italian American Benevolence Association in Haverhill and listed no experience related to firefighting on his application. Another is a groundskeeper for the Methuen Department of Public Works and has no related experience, and another works in a warehouse and did an internship with the Lawrence Fire Department.

"It's not like they hired people that were more qualified than me," Ferreira said. "It's unfair."

The city also selected a Navy veteran who works as an emergency medical technician, an Air Force veteran who is also an emergency medical technician and a Marine who works for the public works department.

Ferreira said she was not given a reason as to why she was suddenly added to the list.

"I mean, I'm happy and I think that they made the right decision," she said. "I just have to trust that they're doing this in good faith."

Mayor Manzi said he is barred from saying why certain candidates were not chosen. He said he didn't participate in the job interviews, but he did review the selection process and discussed the candidates' "relative strengths and weaknesses."

"I don't recall whether we discussed this individual (Ferreira) specifically, but if we did, I'm not able to say that here," the mayor said. "We acted within the confines of civil service regulations and law. It's as simple as that."

The Civil Service Commission voted July 9 to open an investigation into Methuen's hiring practices. It is ordering city officials to turn over any e-mails, memos, letters, computer files, phone bills, notes or other records regarding the selection of reserve police officers last fall, according to documents posted on the commission's Web site. A hearing is scheduled for Aug. 3.

Before learning that she had been added to the reserve list, Ferreira said she planned to appeal to the Civil Service Commission to overturn the city's decision to bypass her. Methuen has to provide the state with a reason for bypassing her, which it did not do, she said.

What went wrong

Ferreira said her interview panel included Gallant and McCarthy. They didn't have her resume handy, and they didn't know her first name when she walked in the room, Ferreira said.

"I walked in and sat down and they said, 'Hi Erica,'" she said. "They didn't have my packet with them for the interview."

Gallant said he and Assistant fire Chief Dennis Bergeron, who has also retired, recommended that the mayor select Ferreira.

"She was on the list that assistant Chief Bergeron and I submitted that was recommended to be appointed, but I have no idea what the final list looks like," Gallant said. "I do recall all the veterans were on there."

The fire officials submitted their recommendations to the mayor, who is the appointing authority, he said.

Gallant said he retired before seeing the list of people the mayor chose for appointment.

"So I don't even know the exact list and who is on it," he said.

The Eagle-Tribune filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the mayor and McCarthy in an attempt to obtain Gallant's recommendations, but they did not make the list available by press time. By law, Manzi and McCarthy have 10 business days to respond to the request.

Manzi said that after speaking to an Eagle-Tribune reporter about Ferreira, he called McCarthy and asked for information about Ferreira. Then he told McCarthy to add Ferreira to the reserve list, he said.

"I got an overview of two facts: One, that she was well thought of, and two, that there was a slot (on the reserve list) that was open," Manzi said. "In light of that and in light of the fact that she is well-qualified, I said, 'Well let's put her on.'"

McCarthy said she used to baby-sit Ferreira, so she didn't take notes during the interview.

Manzi said because McCarthy knew Ferreira, she recused herself from Ferreira's selection process "to some degree," and the mayor "dealt only with her (McCarthy) and not with the fire chief on it."

"I think that's the real reason" Ferreira wasn't picked the first time around, he said. "That led to an oversight there that we corrected."