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NAACP Leader Criticizes Springfield Fire Chief Hiring

Springfield NAACP

  A civil rights activist voiced concerns to city councilors in Springfield, Massachusetts Monday that two qualified minority candidates had been passed over during the selection of the city’s next fire commissioner.  The claim was rebutted by the administration of Mayor Domenic Sarno.

    Bishop Talbert Swan, the president of the Springfield chapter of the NAACP, said the hiring of Bernard “B.J.” Calvi as fire commissioner continues what he claims is a history of racial disparity in the city’s fire department that is particularly acute in the higher ranks.

  " I think the city missed out on a golden opportunity to make history by having the first fire commissioner of color in the city's history," stated Swan. " I think we are far behind the curve when it comes to that."

   Swan, first in a letter to Mayor Sarno, and again at Monday night’s council meeting, asserted that two Springfield fire department supervisors – one Hispanic and the other African-American – are more qualified to be the city’s next fire commissioner than Calvi – a white deputy chief with the Agawam Fire Dept.

  " Both of those individuals had educational and experiential qualifications that by most estimations superseded those of the candidate that was hired," Swan claims.

   The mayor’s office released a copy of a letter Sarno sent to Swan in which the mayor flatly denied any racial bias in the hiring of the fire commissioner.

   Swan brought his concerns to the full city council, which met as a “committee of the whole” where no votes can be taken.

  " It is at the discretion of the mayor ( to hire a fire commissioner), but the city council can use its bully pulpit to speak to the issue and I think they should," Swan said.

   City Council President Orlando Ramos said Swan raised some valid concerns. 

   City Councilor Tom Ashe, the longtime chairman of the council’s Public Safety Committee, said he supports the hiring of Calvi as the next head of the fire department.   

   " I hope all our departments are acting in accordance with the rule of law and that race never comes up, and I don't see it was in this particular instance," said Ashe. " I am confident the people who did the vetting did a good job and we have the best candidate available."

   Human Resources Director William Mahoney told councilors that a nationwide search for a fire commissioner, launched earlier this year, produced almost 40 applicants.  The search was narrowed to six finalists – two current employees of the Springfield Fire Dept. and four who are not.  The finalists were interviewed by a review committee consisting of Sarno, Mahoney, the mayor’s Chief of Staff, Denise Jordan, and the city’s Chief Administration and Finance Officer, T.J. Plante.

   Sarno announced the selection of Calvi on October 26th and said he had signed a five-year contract. His term as fire commissioner begins on January 28th, 2018.

   The search for a new fire commissioner was launched after Sarno announced in January that he would not reappoint Fire Commissioner Joseph Conant.  Sarno never offered a public reason, but earlier the mayor had criticized Conant for failing to discipline a deputy chief over a disputed residency requirement.

  A lawsuit has been filed against the city by a black fire captain who claims his bids for promotion have been blocked.

The record-setting tenure of Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno. The 2011 tornado and its recovery that remade the largest city in Western Massachusetts. The fallout from the deadly COVID outbreak at the Holyoke Soldiers Home. Those are just a few of the thousands and thousands of stories WAMC’s Pioneer Valley Bureau Chief Paul Tuthill has covered for WAMC in his nearly 17 years with the station.
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