In this perilous economy, Governor Deval Patrick is faced with extraordinary economic challenges. If he’s looking to make quick cuts, though, he could save nearly half a million dollars annually by excising a mysterious body right under his nose — one that even bears his title in its name.
The Governor’s Council is a prestigious-sounding, 229-year-old elected board that was originally formed in the newly independent Commonwealth to check executive muscle. But the council has slipped in stature since the days it counted among its members such names as Samuel Adams, and is today little more than a ceremonial eight-member rubber-stamp and favor-bank headquarters for political beauty contestants.
The current, all-Democratic devolved Governor’s Council — also known as the Executive Council, or, officially, simply as the council — is a well-below-the-radar, arguably useless curiosity, but, mind you, one that costs taxpayers approximately $400,000 each year for eight $26,025 salaries plus administrative support.
Of the State House insiders who even know the obscure body’s function — which is primarily to vote on judicial appointments — many, including at least one former governor and several sitting legislators, believe that the council should be axed altogether. “The council may have been necessary to regulate the actions of a governor appointed by the English monarchy, but its purpose is clearly archaic,” says Democratic state senator Brian Joyce of Milton, who, along with State Representative Barry Finegold, a Democrat from Andover, filed unsuccessful legislation to do away with the council in 2004, and plans to do so again this session. “Abolishing the Governor’s Council [would be] a small but important step toward streamlining government.”
The purpose of having a committee that automatically approves the judges recommended to it seems redundant. One 12-year member of the council, Marilyn Petitto Devaney of Watertown, admits that she can recall only one instance in her tenure that the council voted against a recommended judge. But more insidious is the claim that the council is an out-of-the-spotlight arena for pay-to-play politics.
“Every time there’s anything significant written about the council,” concedes rebel council member and Peabody attorney Mary-Ellen Manning, “we come out looking like a bunch of buffoons.” It takes just a few minutes in their chambers to see why. What’s not so clear, however, is why this long-standing farce is still running.
The chamber zone
Although councilors are often flogged in the media for poor attendance, their final Wednesday assembly of 2008 is a solid showing. Medford-based councilor and former State Senate staffer Michael Callahan arrives first; followed by Christopher Iannella Jr., a Boston personal-injury attorney and political legacy; and Thomas Foley, a former State Police colonel from Worcester. Fall River–based councilor and real-estate broker Carole Fiola, who, having missed 15 percent of meetings this past year had the council’s worst attendance record, also shows early. By the assembly’s noon commencement, Lieutenant Governor Timothy Murray, who sits as ex-officio chairman, and all but two members — 15-year councilor Kelly Timilty of Roslindale, and Manning, who is out sick — are present.
Members then vote quickly on judicial nominees who appeared before the council in weeks prior. While Manning and Devaney often add dissenting voices, candidates are, with remarkably few exceptions, always approved. By the time applicants face councilors, they have already been vetted by a governor-appointed Judicial Nominating Committee (JNC) and approved by the governor, whose best interest is to advance nominees he is certain will win more than 50 percent of council votes. Members say the council — as an elected layer — guards against the executive branch running roughshod over the judiciary. But considering their apathetic approach and predictable record, it doesn’t seem like councilors protect much of anything.
The routine assembly takes less than 15 minutes, at the end of which Timilty finally shows up and asks, “What did I miss?” The answer, some might say, is nothing — no matter who shows up and when, and regardless of what’s on tap, the results are almost always the same.
A history of incompetence
The council wasn’t always populated by redundant automatons in ceremonial posts. Four of the first 10 State Senate presidents, including one-time Massachusetts governor and Founding Father Samuel Adams, served time, as did thrice-elected 19th-century House Speaker Timothy Bigelow. Established in 1780 by Adams and other framers via the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, the then-nine-member commission was intended to assist with “ordering and directing the affairs of the Commonwealth, according to the laws of the land.” For almost the next 180 years, the council gave “advice and consent” to governors and lieutenant governors on virtually all matters, aside from the issuing of vetoes.
Things changed in 1959, after five out of eight councilors were indicted and jailed for committing more than 1000 combined acts of corruption and bribery. Five years later, its members were stripped of many of their duties — such as fixing salaries and waiving licensing fees — that a good number of their predecessors had exploited. Remaining responsibilities, which are still in place today, were limited to green-lighting judicial and quasi-judicial officers, granting pardons and commutations (none of which have come before them since Governor Jane Swift left office in 2003), and authorizing State Treasury expenditures (which entails signing forms pushed in front of them with no debate).