BOSTON—Massachusetts House Speaker Robert DeLeo said Tuesday he would propose legislation to make sweeping reforms in the hiring and promotion practices of the embattled state probation department.
DeLeo told a breakfast meeting of the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce that his bill would require all applicants for probation to pass a test -- one modeled after an exam used to screen applicants for the state police -- before they can move forward to the interview process.
In a move aimed at limiting political influence in hiring for probation and in all of state government, DeLeo said his bill would also require that all outside job recommendations be made in writing and that they only be made available to managers when a candidate reaches the final stage of the hiring process.
"A job recommendation is a serious matter," said DeLeo. "We all know that a job recommendation from a public official carries weight and I will be the first to say that all recommendations for successful candidates should be transparent."
The proposal would make public any letters of recommendation for candidates who are eventually hired.
Reports of abuses and widespread political patronage in Probation Department hiring has prompted a series of state reviews.
An investigative report by independent counsel Paul Ware last year found there was "an understanding" between certain legislators and former Probation Commissioner John O'Brien that generous appropriations for the department were linked to O'Brien's willingness to give jobs to applicants recommended by the lawmakers.
O'Brien was suspended and later resigned.
The Ware report said seven of 12 job candidates sponsored by DeLeo, including his godson, were hired. DeLeo has acknowledged writing a letter of recommendation for his godson but said he put no "undue pressure" on the department.
The speaker said Tuesday that his proposed test for probation applicants is aimed at ensuring that all candidates meet at least minimum standards.
DeLeo said: "Unless applicants exceed a required score, they cannot advance in the interview process. Period."
The testing proposal represents a shift for the speaker, who had originally sought to require that all probation job-seekers take the state's civil service exam.
The bill would keep the probation department under the judiciary, DeLeo said. Gov. Deval Patrick has called for merging probation with the state parole department and placing both under the Executive Branch.
The measure being drafted would also reorganize the administration of the judiciary by hiring a civilian administrator to oversee the business and financial elements of the court system. The move would separate the judicial and business functions of the courts, DeLeo said, allowing chief justices to focus on such things as caseload, training and discipline.
The idea was welcomed by the Massachusetts Bar Association.
"The model developed by DeLeo will professionalize court management and operations. Management issues have haunted the courts for too long resulting in a poorly run, inefficient system," the MBA said in a statement.
In other remarks to the chamber on Tuesday, the speaker pledged that a plan to revamp the health insurance system for municipal employees would be approved by the House in time for the next fiscal year, which begins July 1.
The legislation would require all cities and towns in Massachusetts to join the state's Group Insurance Commission if they are unable to formulate on their own a system that is equivalent to the GIC, which covers state employees.
The municipal health reform measure would collectively save municipalities at least $100 million annually, the speaker said.
"Through the GIC, municipal employees can have quality health care at an affordable price. I can talk about it from my first-hand experience," said DeLeo, who noted that he recently broke his foot in a fall at home.
DeLeo said he was encouraged to see a group of municipal unions recently come forward with their own health insurance reform plan, though he added that the proposal did not go far enough.
The unions called for establishing health care cost benchmarks that both municipalities and unions would have to meet at the end of the bargaining process. If an agreement can't be reached, the two sides would enter an expedited dispute-resolution process.
DeLeo told the gathering of Boston area business executives that he would support no new state taxes or fees in the House budget.
He also said he was "hopeful" that he could reach a consensus with Patrick and Senate President Therese Murray on a casino gambling bill in the current legislative session. He said expanded gaming would be the fastest way to recoup some of the local aid revenue that is being cut from cities and towns because of state budget constraints.