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State House Roundup: The Ways And The Means

The newly elected this week went west for indoctrination — 'er, orientation — while those still under oath were left at the capitol to begin digging out, and the snow hasn't even started falling.

On Beacon Hill urgency supplanted deliberation as the new modus operandi with Gov. Deval Patrick, House Speaker Robert DeLeo and Senate President Therese Murray looking to find a handle on the reins of the derailed Probation Department even if they're not quite sure yet where to steer it.

The trio gathered in Murray's office on Monday, the halls already decked, to announce plans to immediately push for probation employees to be shifted to the Civil Service system, a surefire way in their estimation to show the public that patronage jobs lawmakers coveted for favored individuals would no longer be tolerated.

File under action soon to be signed, sealed and delivered.

But with no fewer than six law enforcement agencies and publicly appointed fact-finding commissions probing what should be done next — indictments, legislative remedies, or otherwise — the news did not exactly fill everyone with holiday cheer.

Those waving the yellow caution flag included independent counsel Paul Ware, whose own report on probation patronage touched off the call to act swiftly on an issue that hasn't really been on the legislative radar. Ware, in a TV interview, said he was not convinced the Civil Service path was the way to go.

Former Attorney General Scott Harshbarger, tapped by the Supreme Judicial Court to lead a panel that will study potential reforms to the hiring and promotion practices in probation, also tried to hit the brakes by reiterating concerns that DeLeo himself expressed over how Civil Service can handcuff management.

"There needs to be a sense of urgency and importance and priority, but to think there is a quick and easy solution would be a mistake and should not be rushed into," Harshbarger said.

While it could be a month or more before Harshbarger's panel — or the newly appointed, bipartisan commission set up by Patrick, Murray and DeLeo — report back with best-practice recommendations for probation, those in charge saw no reason to wait.

"The point is not to leave the public wondering whether we understand the urgency of a solution," said Patrick, telling those following at home not to confuse speed with haste.

While probation system fixes appear to be job one, no one was accusing a special jobs commission with acting with speed, or haste. A panel created by Patrick and the Legislature two years ago, and asked to recommend ways to create and maintain jobs, still hasn't met and now won't make its recommendations until the middle of 2012, the News Service learned. Skeptics found the panel's inaction at odds with the jobs, jobs, jobs campaign messaging.

But back to probation. As lawmakers teed up a reform, the future of Probation Commissioner John O'Brien, who continues to collect a salary while on suspension, remained an open-ended question. His attorney, Paul Flavin, was reportedly "up to his eyeballs with work," according his secretary, as way of explanation for why the attorney could not return repeated calls and e-mails from the News Service for weeks.

Flavin did find a little time in his schedule this week to try to drag the judiciary and the executive branch into the probation scandal with strategically placed stories in the Boston Herald detailing thank-you notes Chief Justice of Administration Robert Mulligan authored to O'Brien for a job delivered, and job referrals from unnamed officials in the Patrick administration.

While those already bound by their oaths of office dealt with probation fallout, legislators-elect decamped to college in Amherst this week for boot-camp in the Art of Governing 101.

With welcomes delivered by DeLeo and Murray, newly elected pols got schooled in the finer points of lawmaking and received briefings on the budget and health care payment reform.

Session 1 at freshman orientation: "Power Up Your Media Performance" led by Heidi Berenson of Berenson Communications in Washington. The syllabus was not immediately available, but when asked about orientation, one newly minted lawmaker showed off his new skills — background only, don't use my name.

There were mock sessions, lesson on dealing with leadership — from leadership — and even a primer on how to get your message through the media from former Boston Herald reporter and UMass spokesman extraordinaire Robert Connolly.

Ironically enough, a day after Connolly's presentation he was thrust out of the classroom and back to work when UMass Board of Trustees Chairman Robert Manning, chairman of the global MFS Investment Management, abruptly quit the board, sparking whispers and anonymously sourced jabs at the governor that Manning had become weary of intrusion by the governor's office into the day-to-day affairs of the university.

Patrick has been denying reports for weeks that he has tried to influence the selection of a new UMass president, reports that triggered UMass Lowell Chancellor Marty Meehan to withdraw his name from consideration after it was prematurely made public.

Patrick, again, said he had no opinion of Meehan's candidacy and did not express concerns about him to members of the search committee. But his repeated insistence that he only cares about ensuring a "fair and transparent process," punctuated by a meeting with UMass heavies to discuss the search, ignores the message implied by speaking up on that topic: perhaps, just maybe, he believes the process has not, in fact, been fair and transparent.

Education Secretary Paul Reville even went so far as to suggest that the whittled down list of 14 presidential contenders may not ultimately be THE list to replace outgoing President Jack Wilson. While he denied wanting to hit the reset button, the search is ongoing, he said.

Controversy took a quick respite mid-week for the confirmation of new Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Roderick Ireland, who will become the first African American to lead the country's oldest court. Ireland received unanimous support from the Governor's Council, setting the stage for Patrick to name another SJC appointee "soon."

Stay tuned.

STORY OF THE WEEK: Meddling, for better or worse

This program aired on December 10, 2010. The audio for this program is not available.

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