Hiring change in Probation Dept. is OK’d
Bill to end patronage heads to the governor
Massachusetts lawmakers who were lashed last year for meddling in Probation Department hiring yesterday passed a bill to distance themselves from it, giving the Supreme Judicial Court the authority to hire a professional administrator who would serve as a backstop against patronage hiring.
The bill, which also creates practices for hiring at the Probation Department, now goes to the desk of Governor Deval Patrick, who was expected, but not certain to sign it. The governor had initially called for merging the Probation Department with parole and taking it under the control of the executive branch, but he faced resistance from both other branches of government. The bill passed yesterday would leave the department under the control of the judiciary branch and give it more explicit power over hiring, which in the past was almost entirely under the control of the probation commissioner.
The hiring system and lawmakers’ influence over it was the subject of a 2010 Globe Spotlight Team report that found systematic hiring of unqualified but politically connected employees. The story pointed to influence from Representative Thomas M. Petrolati - who was formerly the third-ranking Democratic leader of the House - as well as House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo, who had recommended at least a dozen employees, including his godson who became the state’s youngest chief probation officer.
In an interview yesterday, DeLeo said it became “important to me personally’’ to demonstrate that the Legislature was willing to reform the system.
“I went at it as an important personal issue to show the people of the Commonwealth that we hear them,’’ DeLeo said. “We hear their concerns. We hear their criticisms and we’re going to act upon them in relation to our hiring practices in our Commonwealth.’’
Former attorney general L. Scott Harshbarger - who led a task force created by the Supreme Judicial Court to overhaul the hiring and promotion process - noted that the probation commissioner previously had legislative authority to run his department “almost unilaterally.’’ The department’s independence and lack of accountability left the department subject to influence by lawmakers, who controlled the department’s budget and recommended friends and supporters for hire.
“I commend the Legislature, the speaker and the senate president for making it possible now for the court to do what it says it wants to do - put its own house in order,’’ Harshbarger said.
However, Harshbarger said the integrity of the new system would rely upon the SJC’s choice of administrator.
“This goes to the quality or the character of the person selected,’’ said Harshbarger. “We know that even the best systems can be corrupted . . . But at least we know who to hold accountable.’’
The new administrator would handle the courts’ budgetary and hiring matters while the judges would keep oversight of the courts’ scheduling.
In a joint statement issued yesterday, Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Roderick L. Ireland and Chief Justice for Administration & Management Robert A. Mulligan said they were pleased that the legislation “retains the office of Probation in the Judiciary.’’
Ireland had made a distinct public break with Patrick on the issue shortly after his appointment, by rejecting the idea of moving the Probation Department to the governor’s control.
The governor’s spokesman Alex Goldstein said the governor would wait to comment until he has reviewed the bill.
Senate President Therese Murray, a Plymouth Democrat, said in a statement that the legislation was a culmination of hard work by legislators and experts in the fields of law, probation, and court management.
“With new rigorous procedures in place, we will create a more efficient and transparent court system where only the most qualified and well-suited candidates are hired,’’ she said.
If the governor signs the bill into law, everyone who applies for work or for promotion in the courts would have to meet minimum qualifications and would be subject to “rigorous background and behavioral interviews’’ to make sure they are suited for the job. References from legislators wouldn’t be considered until the final stage of the hiring process and written references would be considered public record.
Every hire in the Probation Department would need to be approved by the administrator, as well as the probation commissioner. Court employees would need the sign-off of both the administrator and the chief justice of the Trial Court.
The measure “brings more transparency and openness,’’ said DeLeo. “If they have to go through a testing and recommendation process, an interview process and all those records are now public, I think that’s pretty strong.’’
The bill calls for all applicants for work in state government or the courts to disclose the names of any immediate family members who work for the state. If hired, that information would become public.
“This isn’t a baby step. This is a major change in how we do business,’’ said DeLeo.