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2d official ousted at state parks agency

The Romney administration pushed out a second high-level official at the Department of Conservation and Recreation yesterday and warned more firings could be on tap in what is quickly becoming an overhaul of the state's parks agency.

Meanwhile, supporters of former commissioner Katherine F. Abbott, whom Governor Mitt Romney forced out Friday, said she had experienced tensions with the governor's office after she declined to hire an unsuccessful GOP House candidate that Romney's office had recommended.

The controversy over the parks agency and its performance continued to spark interest among leaders on Beacon Hill yesterday. The agency had failed to clear snow from a sidewalk along VFW Parkway, where four high school students were struck Friday by a pickup truck.

Yesterday, Pam DiBona, chief of staff, offered her resignation, and it was accepted by acting DCR Commissioner Steve Pritchard.

''As commissioner Abbott's hand-picked chief of staff, [DiBona] also had to be held accountable for some of the same operational failures that led to commissioner Abbott's resignation," said Joseph O'Keefe, spokesman for the Executive Office of Environmental Affairs, which oversees DCR.

DiBona did not return calls seeking her comment.

Other employees responsible for what the governor said was a dismal snow removal job on state parkways and sidewalks after last month's blizzard could be fired in the coming days, O'Keefe said. Romney announced yesterday that snow-plowing duties on 152 miles of DCR-managed parkways are being taken over by the Massachusetts Highway Department, though sidewalks still will be the responsibility of DCR.

''The entire agency is under a high level of scrutiny as this period of transition continues," O'Keefe said.

Abbott did not return phone messages yesterday, but her allies inside and outside the DCR pointed to growing tension with the governor's office as one reason for her sudden departure. Three administration and legislative sources close to Abbott said tensions were already high between Romney's office and Abbott's, and not just because of snow.

Abbott, the sources said, received at least one call from Romney's chief of staff, Beth Myers, in recent weeks asking her to hire Mary Connaughton, a onetime Republican legislative candidate, as a top finance aide. Abbott, however, refused and instead recommended Marianne Fleckner to the job. The governor later accepted Fleckner for the post.

Eric Fehrnstrom, Romney's communications director, declined to identify any of the three candidates vying for the deputy commissioner's post, saying it was an internal personnel matter. However, he said: ''Obviously, from time to time we will forward the names of candidates who are looking to work for the administration, but we give the agencies a great deal of leeway in making their own hiring decisions. In this case, Kathy Abbott conducted interviews for a new director of administration and finance, and we have approved the person she selected to fill that position."

Connaughton, who lost to Tom Sannicandro, a Democrat, by a 2-to-1 margin for the Seventh Middlesex House seat, could not be reached for comment.

In the days before the VFW parkway accident, DCR and the state Highway Department were negotiating an agreement to turn over road plowing responsibilities of the state's parkways to the Highway Department. Abbott signed the agreement Thursday, and the Highway Department commissioner signed it Friday. The major commuter roads were taken over yesterday; others, including the VFW Parkway, will be phased in.

Romney was displeased with Abbott's oversight of DCR plowing operations before last week's accident, according to a top-level administration source who spoke only on the condition of anonymity. The governor was angered when he attempted to contact Abbott after last month's blizzard but learned that she was out of reach on a retreat, the person said.

Romney spoke to DiBona instead and expressed his outrage about lack of plowing on the agency's winding parkways, where he saw lane closures and mounds of snow, the official said.

On Friday, shortly after the accident, Abbott reportedly assured the governor's office that DCR had removed snow from the parkway, according to another source briefed on the firings who spoke on condition of anonymity. But the governor's aides later learned that a snowed-in sidewalk across from West Roxbury High School and a thigh-high snow bank blocked a path to a crosswalk connecting to the school's entrance.

Meanwhile, environmental groups continued their defense of Abbott yesterday, firing off letters to Romney and lashing out at the governor for transferring snow-plowing duties from DCR to MassHighway.

''Parkways are very different from regular highways," said Renata von Tscharner, president of the Charles River Conservancy. ''They have a special character, and they need very special attention. If the special attention is not paid, then they just fall into the category of a regular highway."

Tscharner and other advocates began lobbying legislators to fight the move early yesterday, and state Senator Pamela P. Resor, who chairs the Environment Committee, is now jumping into the fray.

She will cosponsor a hearing Friday with Senator Jarrett T. Barrios of the Public Safety Committee to investigate Friday's accident and what both have said is the underfunding of DCR that may have contributed to it. The two lawmakers issued a joint statement yesterday, saying that ''firing one person before an investigation had even begun won't get to the root of this safety problem."

''It's pass-the-buck politics at its worst and if the governor won't take the time to find out why kids walking to school can't have clear sidewalks then the Legislature will."

Fehrnstrom said arguments that the DCR is underfunded were nothing but a distraction from the real problem. Fehrnstrom defended the administration's record on funding DCR's operations and capital budgets. ''The bottom line is DCR has the resources it needs to carry out its job," he said. ''Part of that job is clearing sidewalks in front of schools after it snows. We should stop making excuses for the agency's failure to do so in the case of the injured West Roxbury high school students."

Donovan Slack can be reached at dslack@globe.com.

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