Tuesday, September 4, 2012
Gov's Council race has big impact, small visibility

BOSTON -- Buried in the bowels of the Statehouse sits a room where Mary Ellen Manning says everything starts, "all the patronage, all the deals."

It's a modest room where the Governor's Council, an elected body of eight members tasked primarily with approving the governor's judicial appointments, does its business.

Manning, whose decade-long run as a council member will end in January, has made headlines during her tenure for questioning appointments.

The room where the council meets might be obscure, but according to Manning, it's the epicenter of pay-to-play Massachusetts politics.

"There's a lot at stake for nominees," she said about the judges and Parole Board members who must win the council's approval before landing the job. "It's lucrative, these involve multimillion-dollar pensions and a lifetime appointment."

Despite the impact the council wields on the judicial makeup of the commonwealth, each of the five candidates running to succeed Manning's post as the 5th District's representative has agreed on one thing: The hardest part about the race is educating the public about who and what the Governor's Council is.

"It's a 17th century plan trying to address a 21st century problem," Salem candidate David Eppley said Friday.

Eppley's campaign is unique since his is the only platform that calls for abolishing the council. Eppley said Friday he'd rather see the process "wind up in the hands of the Legislature."

Abolishing the council would require an amendment to the state's Constitution, which would also require the question to be placed on a state election ballot. That's exactly what a bill filed by Milton state Sen. Brian Joyce would do.
Joyce's bill, still languishing in a committee somewhere on Beacon Hill, would shift the council's duties to other branches. The most significant responsibility -- the approval of all judicial officers -- would be up to the state Senate.

Manning, who is running for a seat in the state Senate instead of re-election to the council, said Wednesday she's dead-set against Joyce's idea.

Nowhere in Joyce's bill does he address concerns over political donations, Manning said.

"The number-one donor to state political campaigns are lawyers," said Manning, who happens to be an attorney. "I'd be all for Joyce's idea as long as they (the Senate) reject political donations."

Eppley, who has been critical of Manning's bare-knuckles approach to serving on the council, said one solution to the donations hurdle would be to implement a "four- or five-year cooling-off period" whereby attorneys and other seekers of a council post would only be allowed to run if they have refrained from making a political donation for a set period of time.

But, as Manning points out, the perks of serving on the council are pretty good for members. She said she was paid $26,025 last year, coupled with insurance benefits and a parking spot at the Statehouse.

Altogether it costs the taxpayers $500,000 annually to fund the council.

Manning said abolishing the council would be a big mistake.

"The Senate would take the $500,000 expenditure and turn it into a $50 million expenditure, with computers, staff and chairmanships," she said.

There is also the part about vetting nominees.

When it comes to judicial appointments, the governor must choose from a list of candidates produced by the governor-appointed Judicial Nominating Committee, a group Manning said admittedly does not follow up on candidates' resume claims.

"They screen the people that are not connected," she said about the JNC. "I was so outraged at some of the things I was discovering at the tail end of the nominating process.

"We're the caboose of the whole thing and it shouldn't be us who discovers criminal activity, sexual harassment or other crimes."

On Sept. 6 the Democratic primary will narrow the field of candidates that includes Eppley, Essex County attorney Donald Bumiller, Gloucester non-attorney Eileen Duff and Peabody attorney George O'Brine down to one nominee.

That nominee will then face Haverhill former school teacher and Republican Maura Ciardiello on Election Day in November.