A bump in the patronage road

Boston city clerk move reeks of insider deal-making

The charade the Boston City Council is engaged in as it attempts to hand off the $100,000-a-year city clerk position to barely-former city councilor Maureen Feeney held its opening act yesterday. All did not go perfectly according to script. 

Feeney, who opted not to seek reelection last month, has been eyeing for years the lucrative clerk’s position, which comes not only with a six-figure salary but the potential for perhaps another $60,000 under the questionable practice of clerks performing weddings and pocketing all the proceeds. Last month, she quietly slipped out of City Hall, resigning her seat almost two months before her term expired without any notice to the constituents she’s represented for 18 years.   

The word was that she was paving the way for her appointment by the City Council this month to the soon-to-be-vacant clerk’s job. State law requires that a councilor be out of office for at least 30 days before being named to a job by those on the body they served as member of. Taking heat for the insider deal that was about to happen with no public notice or process, the councilors set up a show-trial interview process, posting the job for all of a week – a period of time that would be considered a joke in any legitimate search process – before making their way through the applications and selecting two finalists to be interviewed.

Lo and behold, one of them was Feeney. The other, Natalie Carithers, was brought in to play the part of the Washington Generals. Everything seemed to proceeding as planned.

But the councilors, led by President Steve Murphy, now look less like slick engineers of a cynical, but well-planned, end-around and more the Keystone Kops, as it turns out the looming patronage handoff may be in violation of state ethics law. 

The Globe reports today that a 2003 Ethics Commission ruling held that a job candidate’s former colleagues not only cannot vote them into a position within 30 days of the candidate leaving the elected body but they “may not take any action regarding your application such as selecting you for an interview” within that 30-day window. The council announced on Dec. 8 that Feeney was a finalist scheduled for an interview, two days shy of 30 days since her Nov. 10 resignation.

Murphy has taken umbrage at the whole insistence of an open interviewing process, which he has repeatedly said the council is not legally required to do. “Thank you for enduring the process,” he told Feeney after her interview yesterday, telegraphing exactly what a bogus show was on display. “You will be hearing from us.” 

The council may legally be able to hand off the clerk’s job to a former colleague – though it appears in this case that the council is not even complying with the legal requirements to do so. The bigger question is whether it’s the right thing to do.

The 30-day cooling off period, writes the Globe’s Andrew Ryan, is intended to “prevent elected officials from using their position to secure another job from their colleagues.” 

Meet the Author

Michael Jonas

Executive Editor, CommonWealth

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

Of course, that’s exactly what Feeney has been scheming to do, even if she planned to leave office and wait out the 30-day requirement. Should there be a presumption that the six-figure city clerk job is a perk awaiting whichever member of the council is ready for a soft landing at the time that the reigning clerk is ready to retire? The spirit of the 30-day law, in fact, appears to suggest a presumption that the clerk’s job ought not go to a former city councilor.

There has been plenty of talk about how three of the last four city clerks were former city councilors.  Times change, however, and some traditions are best put to rest.  A decade or two ago, the move Gov. Deval Patrick made two years ago to try to install then-state Sen. Marian Walsh in a $175,000-a-year job at a quasi-public authority might have elicited a few groans, and then proceeded as planned. But the public has grown increasingly weary of the sort of insider self-dealing that has too long characterized Massachusetts politics.

Patrick faced a torrent of criticism and pulled the Walsh appointment. The shenanigans being plotted by the Boston City Council seem deserving of the same fate.