Political patronage and hazing

Between the recent release of the report on corrupt hiring practices in the state’s probation department and the cancellation of several high school sporting events, patronage and corruption have been much in the news. In his “Talking Politics” blog at the Boston Phoenix, columnist David Bernstein makes a connection between the two.

According to Bernstein, many people view both hazing and patronage as “perfectly normal and acceptable” practices that might look bad but are “nothing you should get in trouble for.” Regarding hazing, Bernstein says this: “Bulletin: it’s illegal, immoral, flat-out wrong to physically torture kids.” As for political patronage, he says about the same thing: “Bulletin: It is flat-out wrong for someone with political power to use that power to get someone a job, a contract, or other preferential treatment from the government that is supposed to be awarded by merit.”

Bernstein quickly leaves hazing behind and focuses on patronage, especially patronage at the state house. He writes “It’s very hard for pols who have always known that system, and always been part of that system, to mentally accept that the behavior they have participated in for so long is not acceptable.”

While a number of elected officials have responded to questions about the probation department report by saying something like “there’s nothing wrong with me making a call to help a constituent” even the folks saying that – or most of them at least – know that it would be best for them to stay clear of the governmental hiring and promotion process. Perhaps a statewide law similar to that which forbids city councilors in the Plan E form of government from influencing personnel decisions, would be best. Here’s what Massachusetts General Laws chapter 43, section 107 says:

Neither the city council nor any of its committees or members shall direct or request the appointment of any person to, or his removal from, office by the city manager or any of his subordinates, or in any manner take part in the appointment or removal of officers and employees in that portion of the service of said city for whose administration the city manager is responsible. Except for the purpose of inquiry, the city council and its members shall deal with that portion of the service of the city as aforesaid solely through the city manager, and neither the city council nor any member thereof shall give orders to any subordinate of the city manager either publicly or privately. Any member of the city council who violates, or participates in the violation of, any provision of this section shall be punished by a fine of not more than five hundred dollars or by imprisonment for not more than six months, or both, and upon final conviction thereof his office in the city council shall thereby be vacated and he shall never again be eligible for any office or position, elective or otherwise, in the service of the city.

I suspect most elected officials who make job recommendations for constituents would welcome a reason not to do that. While some might truly see their mission in office as helping as many people as possible in any way possible, most make the calls because they have a hard time saying no when someone asks. Boston Mayor Thomas Menino was once quoted in a newspaper as saying he truly dislike hiring anyone because with ten applicants for every job, you’re always left with nine people who hate you and one ingrate. With a law that criminalized “making calls”, it would be easier to say no.