Wu dialed back search for fire commissioner

No job posting, no surveys, just the mayor making a pick

WHEN BOSTON Mayor Michelle Wu went looking for a new police commissioner, the search was extensive.

She assembled a five-member search committee headed by former Supreme Judicial Court justice Geraldine Hines. The panel spent three months talking to community leaders, holding listening sessions with the public, and conducting a multilingual survey of Boston residents. The city also hired one of the nations leading executive search firms for law enforcement agencies to help recruit potential candidates.

All of those steps were taken, Wu said, to find the best candidate for one of the most important jobs in city government. Wu ended up tapping Michael Cox, a former Boston police officer who was serving as the chief of police in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

But when Bostons fire commissioner, John Dempsey, stepped down in June, a very different process was followed in the search for his replacement.

There was no search committee, no listening sessions, no job postings, and no search firm. Instead, Wu announced the appointment of Paul Burke, a 32-year veteran of the department, as Dempseys replacement. Previously, Burke was deputy chief in charge of fleet and facilities.

Wu declined a request for an interview, but her spokeswoman said the mayor handled the hiring process largely by herself. She consulted with the Vulcans, an organization of Black firefighters, and the department’s deputy chiefs.

Once news of former commissioner Dempseys retirement was made public, various stakeholders reached out to the mayors office and recommended candidates,the spokeswoman said.  “Mayor Wu conducted a thorough and rigorous interview process to find the best candidate for the Boston fire commissioner appointment. For this role, Mayor Wu prioritized internal candidates to ensure the new commissioner understood the department to help execute the cadet program, further diversity, and maintain operational excellence.  She is confident in Commissioner Burke’s ability to execute these duties.

Wu has vowed to remake city government, but it appears the notoriously hidebound fire department is not part of that plan. Over the years, the department has been the subject of several commission studies and newspaper reports, all of them concluding the department is too averse to change.

Nearly every fire department employee is a member of Boston Firefighters Local 718 and the department overall is heavily White and male. According to city and other records, 27 percent of Boston fire department employees are minorities, while the citys population is 55 percent minority. In addition, 5 percent of fire department employees are female, even though women make up 52 percent of city residents

Burke, a White male, declined a request to discuss his experience and the hiring process for his new job.

Oren Sellstrom, litigation director for Lawyers for Civil Rights in Boston, said he is troubled by the manner in which Burke was hired.

From all appearances, the city’s selection process for fire commissioner was neither thorough nor rigorous,he said. Given the Boston Fire Department’s long-standing lack of diversity, it is unfortunately not surprising that this internal, closed-door process yielded yet another White male commissioner. Boston residents expect and deserve better from an administration that claims to prioritize diversity and equal opportunity.

Sam Tyler, the former president of the Boston Municipal Research Bureau, said the limited search process was a missed opportunity to recruit a commissioner with a track record for transformation.

As it stands now, there is no way we can be confident that the hiring process identified the best candidate to bring change to the entrenched culture of the Boston Fire Department,he said.

A public records request for documents related to the search turned up little aside from the fact that former Boston police commissioner Ed Davis was hired to conduct background checks on Burke and the only other person considered for the position, whom city officials refused to identify.

Davis was paid $9,999 for his work, $1 less than the threshold required under the procurement law for putting contracts out to bid.

Davis was also a member of the search committee for the police commissioner.