BOSTON – Gov. Deval Patrick is repeating his call to move the patronage-ridden Probation Department away from control of the courts and under his authority. At the same time, Republicans and some Democrats in the state Legislature see the patronage scandal in the Probation Department as an opportunity to reform the way state employees are hired across the board.
Making The Case For Hiring Reforms
Speaker Robert DeLeo has made it clear that, come January, reforming the Probation Department will be his top priority. He will have to work on those reforms with a House of Representatives in which one-fourth will be new. Among the new representatives is Republican Dan Winslow. He’s concerned that probation has been cast as a rogue agency. He doesn’t believe it is. If anything, he says, its hiring practices are common throughout Massachusetts agencies.
“So I think it would be a mistake to define this solely as an issue of the Probation Department. I think this is an issue of personnel, but I think even more broadly, and more importantly, it’s an issue of public trust and confidence in our state government,” Winslow said.
“I think it would be a mistake to define this solely as an issue of the Probation Department.”-State Rep. Dan Winslow
“People have to have a sense that the jobs that we have posted are the jobs that we need for which people will be fairly considered on their merits, and that the best person will be hired for the job. And if that’s not the case, we’re not only depriving ourselves of the best people, the best and brightest, we’re also cheating our citizens.”
Winslow points out that all federal jobs are posted on a website that rejects any unqualified applicants before anyone even sees their application. He thinks the state could do the same thing.
Going Beyond The Probation Department
Brad Jones, the House Republican leader, agrees that reforms need to go beyond probation.
“Certainly, there’s an immediacy to address the issues relative to the Probation Department, but I think we also ought to use the issues that have been highlighted to look at whether there are other areas that go beyond probation, relative to hiring, that we should look at as well,” Jones said.
Republicans are still a small minority in the Legislature, so they will need an alliance with Democrats. And there are Democrats who agree it’s time for broad-based reforms in how state employees are hired. State Sen. James Eldrige is on board. The Acton Democrat says the biggest change he’d like to see is removing the improper influence of legislators on hiring for state jobs.
“Of course the Probation Department scandal is the biggest focus now, but making sure that the reform covers all state agencies,” Eldrige said, “And I do think that it’s something that the Senate and the Legislature as a whole need to take up as the first item of order in January when the new session begins.”
Eldrige says his fellow senators are upset and feel the need to take strong action. He says his constituents are also outraged, and have lost faith in government.
But the calls to change the way all agencies hire have yet to find a high-profile champion. Gov. Deval Patrick made it clear in talking to reporters Thursday that he’s not ready to push for sweeping changes in the way state employees are hired.
“I think probation needs special focus, and I think let’s take a problem at a time,” Patrick said.
And without a push from the governor, the speaker, or Senate President Therese Murray, it’s not clear how far the movement for broader reform can go.