Stung by a widespread patronage scandal in the state Probation Department, the Massachusetts Senate today unanimously passed a bill designed to limit the influence of political connections in obtaining state jobs.
The 39-0 vote came just eight days after a similar bill passed the House – swift movement by Beacon Hill standards – as lawmakers attempt to distance themselves from reports that many in the State House had made frequent calls to help land probation jobs for friends and associates. It also comes as former House speaker Salvatore F. DiMasi’s corruption trial continues to provide fresh daily reminders of Beacon Hill’s seamier side.
“I am confident that, by passing this bill, we can put the scandal of the Probation Department behind us and, once again, as we did previously, lead the nation in this very important criminal justice area,” said Senator Brian A. Joyce, a Milton Democrat.
The Senate bill, like the House version, rejects Governor Deval Patrick’s attempt to claim authority over the troubled Probation Department, instead leaving it in the hands of state judges. The plan adds a professional manager within the judiciary to supervise non-court functions, such as reviewing and approving the hiring of non-judicial employees, overseeing appropriations and expenditures, and negotiating contracts and leases.
The bill also makes a series of changes in rules designed to restore public confidence in the hiring of probation officers and other court employees.
“By putting rigorous procedures in place, we will create a more efficient and transparent court system where only the most qualified and well-suited candidates will be hired,” Senate President Therese Murray said in a statement.
The Probation Department is the target of state and federal investigations related to widespread hiring abuses.
“For far too long, we’ve had a system that has a cloud above it, a cloud where undo political influence has been allowed to participate,” said Senator Bruce Tarr, the Republican leader from Gloucester.
The bill requires all job applicants to disclose the names of immediate family members who are state employees. It also mandates that all job recommendations be put in writing and made public for successful candidates, whether they come from lawmakers or others. Under the Senate plan, those letters could only be considered after candidates are vetted and reach the final stage in the hiring process.
Patrick has also proposed putting a professional manager in charge of probation. But he has argued that it makes more sense to put the department under his authority because he already controls the Parole Board, which has overlapping responsibilities. His administration has also argued that the executive branch is more accountable than the judicial branch, in which judges are appointed, not elected, and generally not subject to open records laws.
Legislators, the Massachusetts Bar Association, and judges, including Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Roderick L. Ireland, argue that the Probation Department is on the road to reform and can be fixed without turning over power to the governor.
Senator Michael R. Knapik, a Westfield Republican, said other state government agencies may be ripe for a similar overhaul. “Probation is not alone in perhaps the need to take a look at management practices, accountability,” he said.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @globeglen.