EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

March 22, 2013

Editorial: City worker earned his dismissal

The Eagle-Tribune

---- — In announcing the firing of a city public works employee recently jailed on a probation violation for failing a drug test, Haverhill Mayor James Fiorentini noted that the employee could not work as he had lost his driver’s license and was incarcerated.

That, sadly, has been no barrier to paid employment with the city of Haverhill in the past.

It remains to be seen if city officials can make the firing of Jonathan Hernandez stick. Such disciplinary measures taken against public employees — not just in Haverhill — have a history of being overturned, leaving our communities stuck with employees who, in effect, are thumbing their noses at the rest of us.

Hernandez was arrested Dec. 6 and charged with possession to distribute a Class B substance (rock cocaine), possession of a Class B substance (Oxycodone), possession to distribute a Class A substance (morphine) and possession of a Class A substance (Suboxone). His arrest came after a police drug task force investigation into alleged drug sales at the Groveland Street apartment building where he was living.

The owner of the building said tenants had informed her that cars, including city vehicles, stopped there for short periods and people came and went at all hours of the day or night. Police generally consider such a pattern evidence of drug sales activity. Police also found scales and clear plastic bags that are “commonly-used for weighing and packaging illegal drugs for street sales” in Hernandez’s possession, according to their reports.

Two weeks ago, Hernandez, 23, pleaded guilty to drug possession charges. Prosecutors dropped the distribution charges. As part of the plea agreement, Hernandez received one year of probation. He was required to remain drug and alcohol free and submit to random drug screenings.

Hernandez was taken into custody Monday after testing positive for drug use. He will remain in jail until a probation hearing April 19.

Hernandez has been on unpaid leave from his job with the Public Works Department since his arrest in December. Now, Fiorentini has fired him.

“He can’t perform his job due to the loss of his commercial driver’s license and because he’s incarcerated,” Fiorentini said.

The mayor’s statement brings to mind the unrelated case of former firefighter Kevin Thompson, who had been driving city fire trucks for years without a valid driver’s license and who collected paychecks while serving four months in jail in New Hampshire on a driving offense. When caught, Thompson immediately filed for retirement. After the city’s failed attempt to deny Thompson his pension, he will collect $41,688 a year for the rest of his life.

Time and again, we have seen disciplinary actions taken against public employees overturned by courts or the Civil Service Commission. At best, communities face expensive legal battles to enforce their punishments, which most people would consider merely common sense.

The mayor’s firing of Hernandez for his incarceration after failing a drug test was appropriate. Let’s hope the city can make it stick.