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Festa, O'Connell resign their posts in governor's Cabinet

Bialecki is new head of housing, development

Michael E. Festa (left) was secretary of elder affairs. Daniel O'Connell was secretary of housing and economic development.
Michael E. Festa (above) was secretary of elder affairs. Daniel O'Connell was secretary of housing and economic development.
By Matt Viser and Kay Lazar
Globe Staff / January 31, 2009
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Two of Governor Deval Patrick's Cabinet secretaries resigned yesterday, continuing his administration's biggest shake-up since the first few months in office.

Daniel O'Connell is stepping down as secretary of housing and economic development, and Michael E. Festa, secretary of elder affairs, is leaving immediately, administration officials announced.

Those resignations follow Transportation Secretary Bernard Cohen's departure this month - he was replaced by James A. Aloisi Jr. - and the departure this week of David Simas, a top aide to the governor who took a job with President Obama's senior adviser, David Axelrod.

Yesterday's abrupt resignations leave gaps on major issues at a crucial time for Patrick.

O'Connell departs as the state grapples with a historic economic downturn, with rising job losses and business closings. He was also the governor's point person on resort casinos, an issue showing signs of becoming a hot topic again. He will be succeeded by Greg Bialecki, a lawyer who most recently served as undersecretary of the Massachusetts Department of Business Development.

Joe Landolfi, spokesman for Patrick, said the resignations were "completely expected and within reason" for changes midterm in any administration.

"We're very fortunate to have the service of all of the secretaries. We're equally fortunate that we have very qualified replacements," Landolfi said. "We're energized and moving forward without missing a beat."

He declined to say whether anyone had been asked to resign.

Festa's departure comes as seniors groups blast the administration for, they say, diminishing its commitment to seniors. Facing stiff opposition from advocates, the governor this week postponed a plan to shift a wide range of services and programs for the elderly out of Festa's office. Critics said the shift would risk letting elderly residents fall between bureaucratic cracks.

Saying they are "deeply disturbed" by Festa's departure, a dozen groups led by AARP Massachusetts sent a strongly worded letter to Patrick yesterday stating that they are "perplexed as to why the Executive Office of Elder Affairs is being dramatically weakened at a time when 25 percent of the state's households include at least someone age 65 or older."

Key programs in the office have been cut substantially, including one that helps defray prescription costs for tens of thousands of seniors, but "if it wasn't for [Festa's] leadership, it would have been so much worse," AARP Massachusetts director Deborah Banda said in an interview.

"He brought an energy to that office," Banda said. "He was out in the community . . . and he made sure that the people who relied on these services had a voice at the table."

Juan Martinez, a spokesman for Health and Human Services, which oversees elder affairs, said Festa's departure does not signal a diminished interest in seniors.

"We've always been committed and have spent a great deal of attention on elder issues and that's not going to change," he said.

Festa, 54, a trial lawyer and former state representative from Melrose who was appointed secretary in October 2007, said in a phone interview that he felt lucky and blessed to have had the position.

"I very much respect and appreciate what the governor has done for seniors and have tried, throughout, to do the best I can for him and for seniors," he said.

Festa declined to say whether he was asked to resign. He said he is considering "several opportunities" and hoped to continue working with elders, but said he has not made any decisions on his future.

Ellie Shea-Delaney, who served as interim secretary prior to Festa's appointment, will assume that role again until a new secretary is appointed, according to the administration.

O'Connell, the outgoing housing and economic development secretary, who has been in his position for two years, declined requests for comment. His spokeswoman said he was not forced to resign, and was leaving for personal reasons.

"Dan is going to take a pause from his professional life for a while and do some traveling," said the spokeswoman, Kofi Jones, adding that the resignation is effective next Friday. "He will make a decision on his professional life when he returns."

In a statement, the governor said: "Dan O'Connell has helped us position Massachusetts as a global leader in key sectors such as life sciences, and I thank him for his service and commitment to the job. Greg Bialecki will pick up where Dan leaves off as we continue to prepare the Commonwealth for a strong economic recovery once the recession ends."

Bialecki, who will travel with Patrick next week on a West Coast swing to persuade companies to stay in Massachusetts, said in an interview that he plans to focus on retaining jobs, spending federal stimulus money, and preventing foreclosures.

He said whether to renew a push for licensing resort casinos - which his predecessor argued strenuously in favor of - has not been brought up.

"To be very candid, it's not something the governor and I have talked about," said Bialecki, a 48-year-old Newton resident. "We haven't had any conversation about whether casinos are part of the administration's agenda."

Matt Viser can be reached at maviser@globe.com. Kay Lazar can be reached at klazar@globe.com.

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