BOSTON — Legislators calling for reforms in hiring practices at the state Probation Department remain unsure as to which agency should provide the necessary oversight.
Also, some are pushing for broadening the reform effort to include all state government hiring.
“There needs to be bold reform to look at how to reduce the improper influence of legislators on hiring,” said state Sen. Jamie Eldridge, an Acton Democrat. “I think not just about Probation, but all state agencies.”
House Speaker Robert DeLeo pledged to make reforming Probation his top priority come January. Gov. Deval Patrick is pushing to move the department away from the courts and under his authority.
However, DeLeo became embroiled in controversy following a report in the Boston Globe that he wrote a letter of recommendation for his godson, Brian Mirasolo. At 28, Mirasolo is one of the youngest chief probation officers in state history. DeLeo said Mirasolo got the job on his own merit.
Some lawmakers and government watchdog groups say the Legislature should use the pay-to-play scandal within the Probation Department as an opportunity to reform how state employees are hired across the board.
Eldridge last week emerged as a leading voice for changing the culture of politically connected hires in Massachusetts. He said he is open to a number of reforms, including moving the Probation Department under the executive branch, making all recommendations that legislators write public, and putting restrictions on who legislators can recommend for jobs.A report published by an independent counsel last month found that patronage was a rampant problem within the Probation Department. Patrick said moving it out of the judiciary and into the executive branch would increase the agency’s accountability.
“I’m prepared to be responsible for that, but I want the authority that goes with that responsibility because, in my life experience, separating those two is fatal,” Patrick said last week.
Patrick said the court had a chance to oversee probation and that most other states already have probation departments within the executive branch.
State Rep. Jim Arciero, a Westford Democrat, said he supports Patrick’s plan, noting that it would allow the press to more fully scrutinize the Probation Department. Arciero also said he is looking into filing legislation that would eliminate elected sheriffs.
“I think people are concerned about the combination of politics and public safety,” said Arciero.
Arciero said eliminating elected sheriffs is not in response to an investigation launched by Attorney General Martha Coakley into deceased Middlesex Sheriff James DiPaola’s alleged misuse of campaign funds.
Pam Wilmot, head of the government watchdog group Common Cause Massachusetts, called campaign-finance reform an important piece of eliminating abuse, fraud and patronage in state government.
“One general policy we’ve promoted for decades that deals with pay-to-play is public financing of elections so there are not political contributions,” said Wilmot.
State Rep. Kevin Murphy, a Lowell Democrat, agrees that hiring reforms need to go beyond probation, but said figuring out what areas to address first could prove difficult unless further abuses are exposed.
“You have to guess that if there has been this problem in probation, there are problems somewhere else,” said Murphy. “I don’t know if we have the wherewithal to do the entire state over, but any agency that has the same issues as the Probation Department should be looked at.”
State Rep. Tom Golden, a Lowell Democrat, suggested requiring certain state jobs to have minimum standards of experience and education to ensure that hires are made based on merit, not political connections.
One thing all parties agree on is that if changes are to be made to state hiring practices, cooperation between the Legislature and the Patrick administration is crucial. Eldridge said it is also key that future reforms do not leave loopholes for abuse and gaming of the system.
“It has to be bold reform and not watered down,” he said.