House Speaker Robert DeLeo today proposed a series of steps aimed at reducing the influence lawmakers such as him have over the hiring process at the state Probation Department, whose past practices are now the subject of state and federal criminal investigations.
Only those who exceed a required score would advance, the Winthrop Democrat said, and "recommendation" letters from potential sponsors in the Legislature could only be opened in the final stages of evaluation. Afterward, letters written on behalf of all applicants who get hired would become public records, available for public and media inspection.
DeLeo had previously discussed a hiring process akin to the Civil Service procedure used for other state employees. It, too, requires a test that creates a pool of applicants.
"A job recommendation is a serious matter," DeLeo said of the lawmaker-letters that have sparked criticism but which lawmakers such as him defend as one of their fundamental responsibilities as a public representative. "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."
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 himself wrote a letter of recommendation for his godson, who was hired in 2004 and became the youngest probation officer in the state.
In the advance text of his remarks, DeLeo also called for transferring business administration responsibilities for the state's court system from the chief administrative judge to a civilian court administrator with "substantial expertise" in finance and management.
The current chief administrative judge, Robert A. Mulligan, has been alternately lauded and criticized for his oversight of hiring within the Probation Department. It is currently overseen by the Judicial Branch and, in his remarks, DeLeo supported keeping it there rather than transferring oversight to the Executive Branch, as sought by Governor Deval Patrick.
Nonetheless, DeLeo said the courts would benefit from transferring overall oversight for facilities management, personnel management, accounting, capital planning, and information technology from the chief justice for administration and management to a manager who is not a lawyer.
"In separating the judicial and business functions of the court, the chief justices of each of the court departments will properly maintain responsibility for all other core judicial functions, such as monitoring caseload, assigning judges, judicial training, and judicial discipline," said DeLeo.
The speaker said keeping Probation under the judiciary made sense since probation officers are trusted advisers to judges.
The proposal was cheered 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 lawyer advocacy agency said.
"The employ of a professionally trained, non-judicial court administrator along with other skilled civilian administrators throughout the Trial Court will bring Massachusetts in line with the countryís leading edge, innovative state court systems," the association added. "Massachusettsí citizens will be assured that its stateís judges will be performing the judicial tasks that they were selected to perform rather than be bogged down with management functions."
The bar association also endorsed keeping Probation within the Judicial Branch.
Elsewhere in his remarks, DeLeo repeated his vow not to support any new taxes or fees in the House budget about to be unveiled.
He said he would continue to work with Patrick and Senate President Therese Murray on legislation to expand legalized gambling in Massachusetts. A bill last year to create up to three casinos died after DeLeo insisted and Patrick refused to add slot machines at the state's four racetracks.
While Patrick has not changed his position, DeLeo cast the matter as one of financial necessity, saying it is "the quickest way" to offset projected local aid cuts.
He added: "As our economy recovers, we still find ourselves in the midst of a 'blue-collar depression." I routinely hear about unemployment rates of 30 percent, 40 percent, 50 percent at building trade union halls across the state. Given this environment, we have to find a way to create thousands of construction jobs and permanent jobs."
He also pledged that by the time his chamber approves the budget for the next fiscal year, which begins July 1, the House will have approved a bill requiring cities and towns to provide health insurance plans that at least mirror the state's Group Insurance Commission.
"If cities and towns canít meet or beat the GIC, they will be forced to join it," DeLeo said in his text. "Iíve seen my hometown of Winthrop save $800,000 annually by joining the GIC. If all cities and towns did so, this would collectively save $100 million."
About Political Intelligence
Glen Johnson is Politics Editor at boston.com and lead blogger for "Political Intelligence." He moved to Massachusetts in the fourth grade, and has covered local, state, and national politics for over 25 years. E-mail him at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @globeglen.