Should Massachusetts require a Hiring Influence Reporting System of public officials?

Thursday, December 9, 2010

“From the court system to higher education to the MBTA to the quasi-public authorities, entrenched legislators have long done their best to lard up the public payroll with associates, allies or contributors.”

It would be hard to argue with these words from one of Scott Lehigh’s recent columns in the Boston Globe, (“Patronage, post Petrolati,” 11/24/10).

Lehigh sees a “world-weary resignation” among the populace about the Ware Report, which detailed alleged abuse and corruption in the hiring and promotion practices of the Massachusetts Probation Department.

There is a feeling, Lehigh writes, that, “Massachusetts being Massachusetts, this kind of thing is inevitable.” He’s right.

Politicians got really good at getting government jobs for their relatives, friends and allies.

Does anybody think that is a man-bites-dog story in Massachusetts?

Higher-ups in the Probation Department developed an elaborate system to present politically-wired job candidates as a lot more qualified than they were.

What could be more Massachusetts than that?

If the public really wanted to stop such practices, Lehigh says, they might want to get behind a law change that would “require disclosure by practitioners of patronage politics.”

“Just as they must report campaign contributions and file financial disclosure statements, lawmakers and other elected officials could be required to disclose each patronage request they make (or have someone make in their stead),” he suggests. “Such a reporting requirement could also stipulate that the legislator detail his relationship with the job candidate and list any campaign contributions that person has to make.”

As a registered lobbyist in Massachusetts, I am required to report all campaign contributions; list all bills, budget items and regulations I am working on; and identify the office holders with whom I have met.

It’s no fun keeping track of all that stuff and filling out reports with the Secretary of State’s office twice a year. The deadlines never come at a good time.

Yet the reporting law for lobbyists makes good legal and policy sense. I wouldn’t want to see it go away.

I don’t know if it’s a good idea, or a workable solution, however, to impose an all-inclusive Hiring Influence Reporting System on all public officials.

Having every elected official and every office holder’s staff fill out a patronage scorecard on a regular basis may be a reporter’s (or a regulator’s) dream. But that doesn’t make it the smartest response to the current problem.

Can’t we try some simpler, less expensive measures first, like requiring the State Auditor to conduct aggressive, random reviews of state agencies to make sure they’re complying with their own hiring and employment policies?

After all, the Personnel Policies and Procedures Manual of the Probation Department clearly states that nepotism is a no-no; Section 4.304 says, in part:

“It is the policy of the Trial Court (which oversees Probation) that all appointments be made solely on the basis of merit. The practice and the appearance of nepotism or favoritism in the hiring process are to be avoided.”

Even a greenhorn investigator from the Auditor’s office could have determined quickly that the Probation Department was not in compliance.

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