Clack tackles exam scandal

Acting fire chief's decision led to ruling reversing order to retest

Sun Exclusive

April 17, 2008|By Annie Linskey | Annie Linskey,Sun reporter

Confronting one of his first challenges, the city's acting fire chief, Jim Clack, says he has resolved a racially tinged cheating scandal involving promotional exams by allowing the results to stand.

His decision led to the reversal of a previous ruling by the city's human resources director who had ordered a retest and means that six firefighters identified by the inspector general as likely cheaters -- the top three scorers on a lieutenants and a captains test -- could be promoted.

But Clack said he is considering disciplining them, which could prevent them from moving up in the ranks.

"The impetus for it was me showing up and taking a fresh look, proposing an alternative direction and talking it through," Clack said at an interview this week. He said that accepting the re-done test would penalize the roughly 300 firefighters who took the exam and were not accused of cheating.

Firefighters last month retook the test, which cost the city about $4,000, but now those results will not be counted.

The city's human resources department, which has the authority to certify the test, reversed itself and agreed with Clack's recommendation. Human resources and the inspector general's report on the cheating allegations had advised that the tests be readministered.

Clack's decision is similar to one that former Chief William J. Goodwin Jr. had recommended in December. He wanted the results of the suspected cheaters to be thrown out but the rest of the scores allowed to stand.

The way Clack intervened in this contested issue demonstrates the new chief's consensus-building style -- a signature of his leadership when he served in the Minneapolis department.

"When Chief Clack came on board, we had some discussions on moving forward," said Gladys B. Gaskins, the city's human resources director, who had earlier rejected the idea of recertifying the test. "We had some discussions and trust his judgment and this was the decision we came to."

Capt. Stephan G. Fugate, president of the fire officer's union who often clashed with Goodwin, said that his interaction with Clack is an improvement. "It's like night and day," he said.

Union leaders vigorously fought the concept of retaking the test. Fugate said he is pleased with Clack's decision but remains suspicious.

"I want to see it in writing," he said, crediting the union's aggressive litigation in the case. The union filed an injunction in Circuit Court to prevent the new test from going forward, but it was withdrawn in favor of settling the dispute through arbitration.

The city's unions initially said that the June test might have been compromised because the top scorers on the tests had results significantly higher than others who took it. Those accused were all black, raising concerns that the accusations of cheating could have been racially motivated.

The inspector general concluded that at least five firefighters had a 2001 exam that they studied from, which is against test protocol. That test included numerous questions identical to those on the most recent exam.

His report also found that the test monitor slept on duty; firefighters went to the men's bathroom and used cell phones; numerous people might have had access to the tests before the exam was given; and one firefighter admitted to glancing at the test answers of the person seated next to him.

But Clack said that since only one of the test takers admitted to cheating and nobody said that they witnessed any widespread incidents, it was impossible to prove that cheating had occurred.

Clack noted that there are vacancies for lieutenants and captains that need to be filled. Typically, the Fire Department fills those spots with the highest scorers on the promotional tests. However, since Clack had not determined what, if any, additional punishment those firefighters could face, it is also possible that some of them would still be ineligible for promotion.

Clack acknowledged that the department has problems with some of its internal personnel procedures and said he is hiring Steve Nutting, a human resources official who recently retired from the Minneapolis department, to serve as his chief of staff in Baltimore. Nutting, he said, has experience in labor relations, grievances and disciplinary issues. "He's going to help me make sure we're making positive change in those areas," Clack said.

The department has other issues to deal with. In the past several weeks, allegations have surfaced that members of the Fire Department may have viewed pornography on department computers. Clack said that he was only vaguely aware of those accusations and said the city's inspector general's office is investigating similar allegations.

The inspector general's office declined to comment.

Clack has also actively reached out to the rank and file, surprising many by posting a message titled "New Chief Checking In" to an Internet message board popular with firefighters but often derided by command staff.

Clack said that he weighed the pros and cons carefully before posting to the often boisterous forum, on which racist statements sometimes appear. In the end, he said that his goal of reaching out to as many firefighters as possible outweighed concerns about remarks that others make on the unedited forum.

Since it was initially posted, the thread he started has been viewed almost 24,000 times.

annie.linskey@baltsun.com

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