Extend the Public Records Law!

As a reminder, here is a summary of the Ware report, which detailed legal violations within the Probation Dept.

In the wake of the Ware report and the disgusting patronage in which our State Legislature and Judiciary have partaken, Scott Lehigh has a marvelous idea

So what could be done to tame the political world’s ever-present patronage instinct?

The first step is obvious. Both the Legislature and the judiciary are currently exempt from the state’s Public Records Law, a highly effective tool for watchdogs trying to sniff out dubious hirings. It was that law that let the Globe reveal the gap between rhetoric and reality when it came to the Patrick administration’s attempt to install state Senator Marian Walsh in a highly paid sinecure.

But the exemptions for the judiciary and the Legislature make it difficult even for determined reporters to ferret out the truth about employment decisions involving those branches. Although the Legislature has long waged a covert campaign to make the Probation Department its own patronage fiefdom, the Ware report detailing the abuse came only after the Supreme Judicial Court appointed an independent counsel, armed with subpoena power, to pierce through the murk. The SJC’s action, in turn, followed a painstaking and time-consuming Globe Spotlight Team report that revealed a dysfunctional department chockablock with patronage hires. Extending the Public Records Law would make it much easier for reporters and citizens to probe problematic hiring decisions.

Lehigh suggests putting this to a ballot question for next year.  I agree.  If it is to be a ballot question, then we should do it in an election off-year.  My theory of why Massachusetts remains a one-party dictatorship is because nobody cares about the State Legislature elections.  They happen every two years and are overshadowed either by Governor’s races or the Presidential election.

In an off-year, however, nothing doing.  Voters are likely not paying much attention to anything.  Perhaps only the most committed voter is paying attention to municipal issues.  But if there is enough of a push, beginning with the sheer disgust as to how our Commonwealth uses a system of patronage as feedback to keep entrenched incumbents in power.

As an illustration, check out the Globe’s exposure of Rep. Thomas Petrolati [D-Ludlow] and his system of patronage within the Probation Dept.  In fact, the Globe found 732 donations totalling more than $100,000 to Petrolati from employees of the courts, probation and the sheriff’s department since 2002.  This, until yesterday, was the third-highest ranking lawmaker in the State House.  As this report notes, many donations came shortly before or after an employee was hired or promoted.

The Public Records Law needs extension because, as Lehigh points out, it is very difficult for news organizations to get details like this when, for instance, it comes to light that, say, the Probation Dept. hired a woman as a Probation Officer who leaked information to her drug-dealer friends.  [To make the story even sweeter, this stepdaughter of a judge got a raise after the fact.]

In any case, I will be looking into what it takes to get such a ballot question out to voters next year.  Again, I think it must be posed in an off-year because when we are electing Governors, Congressmen, and Presidents, we are too distracted to look around and see what really counts.

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Ron Gordon

Math nerd in his early 40's who seems to have an opinion about everything and an inability to keep it to himself.