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State House Roundup: A Little Help, Please

This article is more than 6 years old.

If Gov. Deval Patrick could have scripted a start to his final year in office, the first chapter probably wouldn’t have read like this.

As he prepares for his final State of the Commonwealth address in a little over a week and release his final budget proposal, Patrick is dealing with persistent, growing concerns about the management of his Department of Children and Families and the debacle that has become the Health Connector’s new insurance purchasing web portal.

Nothing a few outside consultants can’t fix, or so he hopes.

As if missing 5-year-old Jeremiah Oliver wasn’t enough, the past week brought new allegations of DCF’s lax-at-best handling of sensitive child protection cases. The superintendent of the Northbridge schools surfaced new charges - which have been amplified by a number of lawmakers including Sen. Richard Moore and Senate President Therese Murray - that DCF’s south central office in Whitinsville has been slow to respond to complaints and may have left vulnerable children in danger.

While the administration has tried to assure lawmakers and the public that the Oliver case was an isolated incident in DCF’s North Central office in Fitchburg, the Northbridge complaints lent credence to the notion that problems may be more systemic.

So the administration hired the Child Welfare League of America to review DCF’s operation and advise the governor on how to improve its performance. Unfortunately, the child protection agency isn’t the only area of state government in need of a little outside counseling.

The Health Connector hired MITRE Corporation, a non-profit research and development center in Bedford, to diagnose the problems with its malfunctioning Obamacare website. Canadian contractor CGI, who was also responsible for the federal site, has been basically pulled off the job as officials consider ways to recoup expenses and possibly avoid paying the $58 million balance on the $69 million contract, held by UMass Medical School.

Still, while President Barack Obama took a pummeling for similar website issues and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie this week found himself in the crosshairs for something he said he had no knowledge of, Patrick has seemingly managed to avoid the same type of widespread backlash for now.

Exiled from his office and conference room, the governor spent a good number of hours sequestered in the first floor press room holding meetings on his forthcoming final budget proposal, due later this month.

The governor has often painstakingly avoided using that room for actual press conferences, turned off by its formalities. Until the renovations on the executive suite are completed, however, the room has turned into the governor’s de-facto meeting room, his presence tipped by the State Police troopers who now hang around outside.

That budget, which will presumably be somewhere north of $35 billion, will include a down-payment on the newly approved $2.69 billion, eight-year contract with French rail operator Keolis Commuter Services to run the commuter rail, the largest operating contract ever signed by the state. The MassDOT board approved the contract this week, accepting MBTA General Manager Bev Scott’s selection of Keolis over the current rail operator, the Massachusetts Bay Commuter Rail Co.

Despite howls of protest from MBCR about the administration’s handling of the procurement process and whether Keolis’s lower bid included realistic labor costs that can be achieved without significantly downsizing or slashing compensation for rail workers, the French firm will take over the rails on July 1.

While the State House slowly woke from its holiday slumber this week, many of its inhabitants watched with keen interest as one of its own took the oath of office to become the new mayor of Boston.

Mayor Marty Walsh was inaugurated at Boston College where Yo Yo Ma and other special guests entertained the 8,000-strong audience before an evening gala at the Hynes Convention Center, affectionately dubbed by one attendee as “Marty Prom.”

It didn’t take long before Walsh started rounding out his Cabinet, including Eugene O’Flaherty who he poached from the House to be his corporation counsel, or chief counsel overseeing the city’s 60-plus person law department. O’Flaherty will leave the House before the end of his 9th term and move from Chelsea into Charlestown as a job requirement. He’s just the latest in a string of lawmakers to push the eject button on their legislative careers.

Walsh on Thursday tapped Acting Police Commissioner William Evans to take over the department permanently. The appointment came after the news leaked Wednesday night and Walsh’s office served up a plagiarized press release from the Mayor Menino archives followed by a morning apology.

The House and Senate now have five special elections scheduled for April 1, and election administration was the only major piece of business before the chambers this week, promises of a running start to 2014 notwithstanding. Lawmakers passed a bill to allow cities and towns to piggyback local elections on the April Fool’s Day specials.

Speculation continues on whether Walsh may turn to other former colleagues in the Boston House delegation as he rounds out his City Hall administration, while Rep. Kevin Murphy of Lowell, according to several sources, is deeply interested in the sudden opening of the Lowell city manager’s office.

As some lawmakers fine-tune their exit strategies, Rep. Carlos Henriquez spent the final three days of this week in a Medford courtroom trying to preserve his career. He stands on trial for the alleged assault of a female acquaintance in July 2012. Henriquez maintains his innocence.

The 2014 dance card continued to fill up as well, at least on one side of the gymnasium. Rep. Thomas Conroy, of Wayland, announced that he would run for state treasurer this year, giving up his House seat for a shot at overseeing the state Lottery and state pension fund. He joins 2006 lieutenant governor runner-up Deborah Goldberg and most-likely Sen. Barry Finegold on the Democrat side of the race, and for now is using a car to travel around the state on a meet-and-greet tour instead of his feet.

But like the statewide races for attorney general, auditor, secretary of state and U.S. Senate, the open race for Treasurer Steve Grossman’s seat has yet to entice anyone from the GOP.

The Grand Old Party’s 2012 nominee for U.S. Senate Gabriel Gomez took his name out of the speculation mill, announcing he would not be on the ballot in 2014, opting instead for an unspecified private sector venture with friends. It appears former Romney advisor Peter Flaherty is no longer interested in running for attorney general, if he ever was.

So who will step up for the Republican Party? Time will tell, but for now the banner is being carried by Charlie Baker and Karyn Polito, the gubernatorial ticket that closed 2013 with an impressive fundraising effort netting $582,000 in December.

Though Baker and Polito have raised over $1 million to date toward their joint campaign, Grossman still has the biggest campaign kitty among the Corner Office contenders, starting the election year with close to $1 million in the bank.

STORY OF THE WEEK: With trouble at the Department of Children and Families growing and not going away anytime soon, Gov. Deval Patrick admits he has a problem and looks for outside help.

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