Gov Vetoes Effort To Protect Suspended Probation Commissioner
By Kyle Cheney
STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE
STATE HOUSE, BOSTON, JULY 1, 2010…..A legislative plan to protect embattled and suspended probation commissioner John O’Brien from term limits drew a veto from Gov. Deval Patrick on Wednesday, despite concerns among lawmakers that applying term limits retroactively could be illegal.
“I am vetoing this section because any commissioner of probation should be held accountable by a periodic term of years, rather than a life appointment,” Patrick wrote in a message to lawmakers.
In the annual state budget, lawmakers had approved a five-year term limit for probation commissioners, but on the advice of counsel decided against imposing that term limit on O’Brien, said Sen. Cynthia Creem (D-Newton), who sponsored a slew of amendments to the probation department in the wake of a recent patronage scandal.
After a May 23 Boston Globe investigative report that detailed rampant patronage at the probation agency – often with the blessing or encouragement of legislators – Creem quickly redrafted an amendment to the state budget that eliminated future commissioners’ lifetime appointments in favor of five-year terms. Her proposal also included language establishing a task force to determine whether the probation department should be merged into the Executive Branch – a move supported by Patrick – or remain in the courts.
In an interview, Creem cheered the governor’s veto, saying his legal team must have interpreted the law differently than the Senate’s. She also scolded colleagues for broadening her task force proposal to review other elements of the judiciary, which she described as “a mockery” of its original intent. Creem also bristled at lawmakers’ unwillingness to grant senior court officials total authority to move funds among judiciary agencies. Lawmakers instead limited their “transferability” to 5 percent of their total budgets.
Creem was one of two Democrats to vote against the state budget, citing her disappointment in the revisions to her probation proposals.
“It’s almost a joke,” she said during a floor speech on the budget. “I don’t think it should be a joke.”
A spokesman for House Speaker Robert DeLeo deferred questions to House Ways and Means Chairman Charles Murphy. An aide to Murphy cited the “give and take” of conference committees as the reason the probation amendments turned out the way they did.
“The Governor’s veto message and supplemental budget are both being analyzed by the Committee,” said the aide, Wayne Weikel. “No recommendations for possible action have been made at this time.”
In a letter to lawmakers, Patrick agreed with Creem, calling the task force’s mission “overly broad in its attention on the courts and not just probation, especially during a time of overly stressed resources.” Patrick proposed an amendment to narrow the task force’s scope to the probation department, the office of community corrections and the state’s parole department. The commission’s report would be due Dec. 31, 2010.
A spokeswoman for Senate budget chief Steven Panagiotakos said O’Brien’s lifetime appointment is “contractual” and can’t be revoked. A spokesman for Senate President Therese Murray echoed those concerns, saying a change in O’Brien’s lifetime term would “change an existing contract.”
Sen. Michael Knapik (R-Westfield) said the Senate missed an opportunity to reform the probation office and praised the governor for seeking reforms at the probation department.
“This is classic protectionism on the part of the Legislature,” said Knapik, a member of the six-person House-Senate conference committee that negotiated the state budget.
“I think the conference committee pretty much slipped on a crack and completely negated I think much of what the public demanded from us,” he said. “I certainly recognize that [the governor] has provided some leadership relative to making some changes at a completely dysfunctional state agency. The Senate moved in that direction a little more timidly.”
Knapik said that a leadership change at the probation department may be forthcoming, rendering the exemption “moot.” But for now, O’Brien remains atop the agency, albeit on an indefinite suspension.
The Massachusetts Court Management Advisory Board in April called on lawmakers and the governor to “enact broad changes” to the state judiciary, “including the hiring and tenure practices within the state's Probation Department.”
“Adding to these obstacles to good management is the fact that a large number of key managers in non-judicial positions in the Courts have no terms of office, eliminating a key performance incentive,” the board found. “The Probation Department, while technically part of the Judiciary, is particularly autonomous. This lack of accountability in a department as large as Probation - nearly one third of the employees of the Judiciary - has caused both administrative and political problems that, according to the Board, can be easily avoided with stronger systemic controls.”
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