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Scot Lehigh

A seal of approval for DeLeo

(Matthew J. Lee/ Globe Staff)
By Scot Lehigh
Globe Columnist / March 16, 2011

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BOB DeLEO, to put the matter politely, doesn’t exactly have a silver tongue.

Sometimes, the speaker’s DeLenglish can leave a listener nonplussed, as was the case yesterday, when the House leader said he wished Governor Patrick had “tooken’’ him along on his trade mission to Israel and England.

And yet, DeLeo’s appearance at the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce was attention-getting in more important ways. Until recently a skeptic on the need for Probation Department reform, DeLeo put forth some serious ideas for improving the troubled agency. He’d keep probation under the judiciary, as the state’s top judges want, but require applicants to pass a civil-service-like exam. A professional administrator appointed by the judiciary to oversee nonlegal managerial matters would hire from a pool of candidates who had passed the test.

To forestall the impulse that transformed the Probation Department into a legislative patronage colony, DeLeo would require all hiring recommendations to be made in writing; those letters would be kept from the administrator until the final stage of the hiring process. After new hires were made, recommendations written on their behalf would be subject to public records requests. The put-it-in-writing rule would apply to all state government hires, as would the public records provision.

One needn’t agree with all the details to see this as a serious proposal for bringing more professionalism and transparency to the troubled department. Indeed, DeLeo’s proposal won the Scott Harshbarger Seal of Good Government Approval yesterday.

“I think it’s a very serious step toward professionalizing all aspects of the court system, but particularly probation,’’ said the former attorney general, who is leading a task force on that subject.

On a second front, the speaker fleshed out a proposal he made in January, saying he would push to require cities and towns to join the state’s Group Insurance Commission if they can’t meet or beat the agency on health-plan costs.

“I’ve seen my hometown of Winthrop . . . save some $800,000 annually by joining the GIC,’’ said DeLeo, adding that he knew the agency provided good health insurance plans at affordable prices “because I receive my health care through the GIC.’’ Further, DeLeo rightly dismissed a proposal organized labor put forth last week, saying it didn’t go far enough.

Here, DeLeo underlined his status as the most determined Beacon Hill leader when it comes to municipal health care costs. While Patrick has held out the prospect of directing some of the municipal savings back to union members, DeLeo wants all those savings, estimated at about $100 million in year one, to go to cities and towns.

DeLeo is by instincts a legislative regular, serving as speaker in times that demand reform. Detractors will doubt his sincerity, at least on the probation reforms, because he himself has pushed for patronage hires in the past. Yesterday, he was queried on that point.

“Upon my review of what’s going on, I see it as necessary,’’ the speaker said of his plan. “I think it’s important to send a message to the people of the Commonwealth that we hear their concerns and we’re acting upon them. I think it’s much better that I act and show that we need to make real reform and real changes.’’

So is this just window dressing, or is DeLeo sincere? Several of his associates say that DeLeo genuinely wants his speakership to mark a break with the House’s tawdry past, which has seen the last three speakers — all of whom, incidentally, were there for DeLeo’s January swearing-in — depart under a cloud. Two pleaded guilty to felony charges, while Sal DiMasi, his immediate predecessor, is about to go on trial on corruption charges.

“He believes that his job is a lot harder because of the level of cynicism that there is about the operation of government, and a lot of that stems from speaker after speaker not upholding the integrity of the post,’’ said one.

If so, that would mark a welcome departure and could make DeLeo a speaker to remember — this time, for the right reasons.

Scot Lehigh can be reached at lehigh@globe.com.