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Patrick vetoes effort to protect suspended probation commissioner

At issue: a limit on terms he can serve

By Kyle Cheney
State House News Service / July 2, 2010

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A legislative plan to protect embattled and suspended probation commissioner John O’Brien from term limits drew a veto from Governor Deval Patrick on Wednesday, despite concerns among lawmakers that applying term limits retroactively could be illegal.

“I am vetoing this section because any commissioner of probation should be held accountable by a periodic term of years, rather than a life appointment,’’ Patrick wrote in a message to lawmakers.

In the annual state budget, lawmakers had approved a five-year term limit for probation commissioners, but on the advice of counsel decided against imposing that term limit on O’Brien, said Senator Cynthia Creem, Democrat of Newton, who sponsored a slew of amendments to the Probation Department in the wake of a recent patronage scandal.

After a May 23 Globe Spotlight Team report that detailed rampant patronage at the probation agency, often with the blessing or encouragement of legislators, Creem quickly redrafted an amendment to the state budget that eliminated future commissioners’ lifetime appointments in favor of five-year terms.

Her proposal also included language establishing a task force to determine whether the Probation Department should be merged into the Executive Branch, a change supported by Patrick, or remain in the courts.

In an interview, Creem cheered the governor’s veto, saying his legal team must have interpreted the law differently than the Senate’s.

Creem also bristled at lawmakers’ unwillingness to grant senior court officials total authority to move funds among judicial agencies.

Lawmakers instead limited their “transferability’’ to 5 percent of their total budgets.

Creem was one of two Democrats to vote against the state budget, citing her disappointment in the revisions to her probation proposals.

A spokesman for House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo deferred questions to Charles Murphy, the House Ways and Means chairman.

An aide to Murphy cited the “give and take’’ of conference committees as the reason the probation amendments turned out the way they did.

“The governor’s veto message and supplemental budget are both being analyzed by the committee,’’ said the aide, Wayne Weikel. “No recommendations for possible action have been made at this time.’’

A spokeswoman for Senate budget chief Steven Panagiotakos said O’Brien’s lifetime appointment is “contractual’’ and cannot be revoked.

A spokesman for Senate President Therese Murray echoed those concerns, saying a change in O’Brien’s lifetime term would “change an existing contract.’’

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