Final decision on using civilian flaggers to be made by Mayor Ballantyne and City staff
(Somerville Wire) – The City Council has approved a resolution in favor of civilians taking control over traffic details at construction sites.
“I have never really understood why traffic details are exclusively worked by police officers,” Ward 3 Councilor Ben Ewen-Campen told his colleagues at their May 12 meeting, in introducing the resolution.
“It’s been almost 15 years since it was legalized in Massachusetts to have civilian flaggers, as they’re called. Apparently, we were the very last state in the country to do so. And yet, here in Somerville, like many other cities, we have a contract with the police officers’ union that gives them a complete monopoly to work traffic details,” Ewen-Campen explained.
The City tried to negotiate civilian traffic details in the 2016 police union contract, but the police objected, the issue went to arbitration, and the state sided with the officers’ union, maintaining their monopoly over the work.
The issue has become urgent now, said Ewen-Campen, because “the scale and the scope of construction that is happening in Somerville right now is really off the charts.”
With all the work taking place, there aren’t enough available officers, he said. “So what happens is that, either they go unstaffed, which is dangerous, or in some cases it stops the work from being done. But usually the crews still need to get paid. Or, they get sworn officers from out of town. In many cases, those folks may not be familiar with the local street networks, and may not be familiar with the fact that we have a lot of closures happening at the same time that need to be coordinated.”
Ward 5 Councilor Beatriz Gómez Mouakad, an architect with experience working at construction sites, said anyone working on traffic details needs to be knowledgeable about construction. “We can’t just pick up anybody from the street,” she said.
For larger construction projects, she said, the contractor will usually have its own safety team that oversees protocols and logistics. In these cases, she said, “it shouldn’t be just a civilian. It should be someone from the construction force being the detail. Because they’re the ones who know when a truck’s coming in.”
Councilor-at-Large Charlotte Kelly, a member of the Finance Committee, said the city has been having trouble recruiting and retaining crossing guards “because of the low hours that they work,” and combining construction details with crossing guard work might make it easier to fill both jobs.
Councilor-at-Large Jake Wilson added that parking control officers could also be added to that mix.
In addition to urging the administration to make civilian flaggers a priority during the next round of collective bargaining, the resolution also calls for the establishment of a civilian supervisor position to coordinate the detours to maintain smooth traffic flow across the city.
Having approved the resolution, the council’s Traffic and Parking Committee will continue discussion of its implementation, with final decisions to be made by the Mayor Katjana Ballantyne and City staff.
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Linda Pinkow is a reporter for the Somerville Wire. She is also a development consultant for the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism.