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DeLeo proposes curbs on patronage

Also offers plans for health care, Probation Dept.

House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo spoke yesterday at the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce’s Government Affairs Forum. House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo spoke yesterday at the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce’s Government Affairs Forum. (Bill Greene/ Globe Staff)
By Noah Bierman
Globe Staff / March 16, 2011

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House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo intensified his efforts to boost the Legislature’s image yesterday, fleshing out a series of proposals designed to end patronage in state government, overhaul management at the embattled Probation Department, and reduce health costs for local governments.

DeLeo had touched on the issues before, but yesterday’s speech before the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce offered his most detailed plans yet, delivered at an event often reserved for major policy announcements.

The speaker proposed making letters of recommendation for state jobs available for public scrutiny under the state’s open records law and requiring that all such recommendations be made in writing, in an effort to add transparency to a process that was perceived as giving a leg up to behind-the-scenes candidates.

In addition, he told an audience of lawmakers and executives gathered at the Park Plaza Hotel, those making hiring decisions for state jobs would review the letters only after a job candidate has become a finalist, which he said would curtail the effects of political pressure to hire incompetent employees.

DeLeo would also require new tests for potential probation employees and would mandate that the judiciary hire a professional manager to run the department and other business functions of the court, which are now overseen by an administrative judge.

Legislators, including DeLeo, have been criticized for interfering in hiring for state jobs, particularly at the Probation Department. A Globe Spotlight report found that the Probation Department had employed at least 250 friends, relatives, and financial backers of politicians and top court officials. DeLeo wrote many recommendations, including a letter for his godson, who was hired in 2004 and became the youngest chief probation officer in the state.

Despite calling for greater transparency yesterday, DeLeo declined to make his own recommendation letters public, saying his proposal would apply only to future job candidates.

“Any of the recommendations that I’ve made for folks, I think, were good recommendations, and I don’t want to take back any of the recommendations that I’ve made,’’ DeLeo told reporters after his speech.

But, he added, “this is a much better system than we’ve had in the past that will show the folks out there that they’re getting the best for their taxpayer dollars.’’

DeLeo’s proposals put him at odds with Governor Deval Patrick. Although the governor put forth a similar plan to put a professional manager in charge of probation, Patrick has insisted that his administration, not the judiciary, should oversee the agency.

“Leaving it in the judicial branch is just not going to provide the accountability that the public is looking for,’’ said Mary Beth Heffernan, the governor’s secretary of public safety and security.

She argued that the executive branch is open to greater public scrutiny and voter accountability than the judicial branch, where judges are appointed, not elected and generally not subject to open records laws.

DeLeo’s proposal calls for hiring a civilian administrator with “substantial expertise in finance and management.’’ He said he designed his plan after consulting with several prominent court officials, including the current and former chief justices of the Supreme Judicial Court, as well as outsiders who have studied problems at the department. The speaker came to the conclusion that probation officers act as advisers to judges and should remain under their supervision.

Senate President Therese Murray said that she, too, supports keeping the Probation Department under the judiciary. The proposal to hire a professional administrator has been under discussion for months, she said, adding that she expects support from some Senate members.

“There probably won’t be much pushback,’’ she said. “But I haven’t discussed it with my members.’’

As DeLeo spoke at yesterday’s gathering, Robert A. Mulligan, the chief administrative judge who now oversees the Probation Department, said he did not see the proposal “as a slight.’’

DeLeo’s spokesman said he had not yet determined whether the new court administrator would report to Mulligan.

Mulligan suggested that it may be redundant to add a professional administrator, arguing that he already has eight professionals on staff.

The Massachusetts Bar Association immediately endorsed DeLeo’s proposal, arguing that it would professionalize the Probation Department, while assuring that judges retain oversight. The proposal to appoint an administrator who reports to the judiciary has been part of official recommendations dating back more than three decades, to the 1976 report by former US Solicitor General Archibald Cox Jr. that overhauled the state courts, said Martin W. Healy, chief operating officer for the association.

“Let judges judge and let the professionals come in and run the courts like a business,’’ Healy said.

DeLeo also said yesterday that he did not want to move immediately on one of Patrick’s top legislative priorities, overhauling the health care payment system in an effort to reduce sky-rocketing costs.

“This is really one area [where] we have to slow down and make sure we get it right,’’ DeLeo told the group yesterday.

Murray, however, said the issue is too important to delay, adding that the Senate has already spent four years on it and will continue to push it. She said she expected to pass a bill by the end of this year or early next year.

DeLeo also reiterated yesterday that he will move immediately to reduce health care costs for local governments, pushing a plan that would require cities and towns to join the state health plan unless they can provide services for less money.

Glen Johnson of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Noah Bierman can be reached at nbierman@globe.com.