Letting the Firehouse Learn…
Since Springfield’s fiscal crisis began a decade ago, the ebbs and flows of financial distress have rocked few departments as much as the Fire Department. A critical department, it was often given short shrift by the Control Board, and continues to enjoy less public political support in comparison to the Police Department. Into this environment enter the retirement of Fire Commissioner Gary Cassanelli and the determination for his successor.
While Cassanelli was not very well liked in the department or among the city’s political elite, it is hard to argue that the department as a whole has made the most of the hand the city dealt it. His successor must work even harder to hold the department together ahead of oncoming challenges.
Mayor Domenic Sarno has nominated Cassanelli’s deputy Joseph Conant as Commissioner, having been acting Commissioner since January. However, Conant does not meet the allegedly Cassanelli-crafted Commissioner qualifications written into city ordinance by the Control Board. The ordinance calls for a Commissioner with a master degree. Conant has only an associates degree.
Sarno originally proposed removing the qualification entirely. Today, the Republican reports that Sarno and at-large Councilor and Public Safety Subcommittee Chair Tom Ashe has proposed changing the requirements to one holding a bachelors degree or pursuing one. Indeed, Conant has been attending such courses already. We support this change, and, more importantly, Conant’s appointment, although under certain circumstances outlined below.
Conant’s appointments has raised the ire of NAACP’s president Talbert Swan, II and Conant’s colleague, Jerrold Prendergast, who meets the existing qualifications. Some say Cassanelli encouraged the Control Board to make the changes to Prendergast’s benefit. Both Prendergast and Swan also support a national search, which would likely favor the former’s bid to succeed Cassanelli.
However, Prendergast is, in our estimate, unsuitable for the job in light of his violations of Civil Service laws and alleged nepotism, which has potentially exposed the city to costly litigation.
Both men demand a national search and cite the city’s past use of them for the Police Commissioner and School Departments. We argue that national searches have their place, but the city is right to be weary of them. National searches brought us Ed Flynn as Police Commissioner whose tenure ended when Milwaukee recruited him to be its top cop. Searches also yielded Joseph Burke over local candidate Theresa Regina, who rather publicly spent his tenure looking for another job. Burke’s successor was no better.
In both police and school positions now sit a homegrown leader. This carries risk with it, too. Some complain Fitchet has run the department to the convenience of the rank and file and not the benefit of the city. Similar fears have been raised about Warwick, although it is far too early to make such judgments on his tenure. Similar concerns might exist about Conant, who does enjoy the support of the rank and file.
These concerns, however, must fall to the broader concern that the department go without clear leadership for an extended period of time. It might be enough if we had a successful string of national searches, but we do not.
All that said, the city cannot afford to be cavalier about “dumbing down,” of the Fire Commissioner’s office. This needs to be addressed fairly and appropriately.
The City Council could establish a temporary appointment procedure wherein the city would allow a two-year appointment during which the city would examine whether Conant’s job performance supersedes the need for a masters degree.
This may be too time-consuming to define and implement quickly. The easier option may be to attach conditions on the ordinance that demand that the administration or possibly the Internal Audit Department (which can be so directed by the Council) determine what qualifications are really appropriate. This study could include proper investigation of Springfield peer cities‘ fire department leadership qualifications.
Keeping Conant in the spotlight for the next few years might also allow him some independence. That spotlight could keep the mayor’s office from micromanaging or meddling too much, something it may feel inclined to do considering how much it has already done for Conant.
We do not automatically assume everything Mayor Sarno does is malevolent. Conant clearly has the experiential qualification; his chief local rival is tainted and national searches have often left the city as little more than a layover for ambitious careers. Shame on the mayor for not beginning a public conversation about the true leadership needs of the department as soon as Cassanelli retired. Still, the facts appear to be on his side.
One way or another, we demand thoughtful and deliberative reflection going forward on what the Fire Department’s true leadership needs are necessary and appropriate. To do any less does not only jeopardize the city’s personnel decisions, but the health and safety of its firefighters and residents.