Peter Principle at work in Bay State bureaucracy

Gov. Deval Patrick has a serious problem on his hands. Some state agencies are in full grip of the Peter Principle.

Educator Laurence Peter is forever linked to his observation about management that “in a hierarchically structured administration, people tend to be promoted up to their level of incompetence.”

Patrick’s final months in office have been marred by a series of seemingly unrelated high-profile scandals: Former state chemist Annie Dookhan’s tampering with thousands of drug samples at the Hinton State Laboratory Institute in Jamaica Plain; the disappearance of young Jeremiah Oliver of Fitchburg after a Department of Children and Families social worker and supervisors missed signs that the family warranted more aggressive interventions; and the death of Joshua Messier at the hands of three Bridgewater State Hospital prison guards in a case that was initially ruled a homicide.

Yet the one thread that weaves all of these cases together are the particularly sinister examples of employee incompetence followed by a cascade of middle management failures.

Inspector General Glenn Cunha announced Tuesday that his investigation into the Hinton lab scandal found that “management failures of DPH lab directors contributed to Dookhan’s ability to commit her acts of malfeasance. The directors were ill-suited to oversee a forensic drug lab, provided almost no supervision, were habitually unresponsive to chemists’ complaints and suspicions, and severely downplayed Dookhan’s major breach in chain-of-custody protocol upon discovering it.”

Similarly, the Office of the Child Advocate noted that supervisors at the DCF area office in Leominster failed to step to resolve problems involving the employee handling the Oliver case. A Boston Globe investigation into Joshua Messier’s death discovered that “prison officials responsible for [prison guard] training and oversight appear to have violated more than a half dozen state laws, regulations, and hospital policies in their handling of [Messier.]

The heads of each affected agency responded differently. John Auerbach, the former Department of Public Health commissioner, resigned (The inspector general’s report faulted Auerbach for certain oversights.) Olga Roche, the head of the Department of Children and Families took the rare step of firing three social workers and reassigning a fourth and remains at her post as the Child Welfare League of America conducts its investigation.

The Bridgewater State Hospital case presents the most puzzling response. The guards involved are on paid administrative leave. Public Safety Secretary Andrea Cabral has called for the resignation of Assistant Deputy Commissioner Karen Hetherson, while Corrections Commissioner Luis Spencer received a reprimand.

The governor accepted responsibility in the drug lab case and has called in independent investigators to deal with the Oliver tragedy. However, ongoing criticism over the handling of the Messier case may force Patrick to take stronger steps.

But the mea culpas from the governor and the media jihad against agency chiefs like Roche do little to address the more fundamental problem: When some employees engage in questionable behavior or life-threatening conduct, their frontline managers are ill-equipped to deal with the resulting crisis.

Middle management deficiencies in state government promise to outlive Gov. Deval Patrick and his agency chiefs. Does the Legislature or the next governor need to raise the bar and reassess how mid-level decision-makers arrive at positions of power and develop new standards and training that can keep the Peter Principle at bay?

–GABRIELLE GURLEY

BEACON HILL

A State House hearing today will consider a bill to ban most uses of license-plate scanning technology, a tool increasingly used in the vehicle repossession business, among others.

Republican state Sen. Robert Hedlund of Weymouth has introduced a bill that would curb the use of unmanned drones by police and civilians because of what he says is the “militarization of our police forces.”

MUNICIPAL MATTERS

Fall River Mayor Will Flanagan says he’ll have to cut one-third of the city’s firefighters unless their union makes some concessions. Such a reduction would give the city the lowest firefighter-to-resident ratio of any community in the area, according to the Herald News.

Hanson officials are considering a ban on the time-honored tradition of political activity such as sign-holding and collecting signatures at the town dump, er, transfer station, because of safety concerns.

Organizers of South Boston’s St. Patrick’s Day parade have withdrawn their invitation to the gay rights group MassEquality to march in this year event, accusing the group of lying about being a veterans group.

Boston city councilors light up would-be marijuana dispensary operators. The city’s police commissioner is wary of the pot shops, too.

Lawrence Mayor Dan Rivera rehired a DPW supervisor who was fired by former mayor William Lantigua after some DPW workers were caught dumping snow into the Merrimack River.

In his final budget presentation, Lowell City Manager Bernie Lynch, who is stepping down, called for a 3.5 percent hike in the city’s property tax levy, saying the city could not withstand a third straight year with no increase.

NATIONAL POLITICS/WASHINGTON

The White House offers up an unambitious budget proposal, and gets a chilly reception.

The pro-Obama advocacy group Organizing for America is under fire for allegedly trading a White House meeting to a businessman with federal legal troubles, in return for a commitment to raise $100,000.

Sen. Bernie Sanders defends Saturday mail delivery.

ELECTIONS

Dan Hunt scores a resounding victory in the five-way special election Democratic primary for the Dorchester House seat Marty Walsh held for 17 years and vacated upon becoming Boston mayor. Dan Ryan prevailed in the Democratic primary for the House seat representing Charlestown and Chelsea, and ditto for Roselee Vincent in the race for the adjacent seat covering parts of Chelsea, Revere, and Saugus.

Sen. John Cornyn beat back a Tea Party challenger who once likened Karl Rove to an “elderly baby.” So is the Tea Party over, or not?

Richard Tisei is not the only challenger US Rep. John Tierney has to keep an eye on as two Democrats are gearing up for primary runs to unseat him: veteran Seth Moulton and immigration lawyer Marisa DeFranco, who made an unsuccessful bid in 2012 for the Democratic nomination for Senate.

Governing magazine takes a look at how the 2014 governors’ races around the country are shaping up and says there are some subtle shifts that are troubling for Republicans, including in Massachusetts which the magazine switched from toss-up to leaning Democratic.

BUSINESS/ECONOMY

You want to earn minimum wage? Come on down, says auto dealer honcho Ernie Boch, Jr.

And don’t call him Shirley. Basketball hall-of-famer Kareem Abdul Jabbar, who originally played for the Milwaukee Bucks, teams up with Airplane star Robert Hays in a role reprisal from the movie for a very funny advertisement for the Wisconsin Department of Tourism.

EDUCATION

The Massachusetts Teachers Association is asking the state to revise a provision in one of the turnaround options for underperforming schools that was chosen by the New Bedford superintendent that allows her to replace 50 percent of the teaching staff at the city’s failing high school.

The New York Times digs into the standoff between New York Mayor Bill de Blasio and a prominent city charter school operator.

HEALTH CARE

Do not put Paul Levy down as a fan of robotic surgery.

TRANSPORTATION

A new mayor with deep ties on Beacon Hill presents a great window of opportunity to consider some far-reaching transportation reforms for the Boston area, write Joseph Giglio and Charles Chieppo in CommonWealth.

A $100 million upgrade is on tap for Logan Airport’s international terminal, as the airport looks to boost its standing as a gateway for overseas flights.

A Globe editorial scolds Boston Police Commissioner William Evans as an out of touch “defender of the status quo” when it comes to new transportation innovations like Uber.

State investigators ask the Montachusett Regional Transit Authority to certify that it isn’t shredding records related to alleged double-dipping by the agency’s leader.

In a bipartisan vote, the New Hampshire Senate Ways and Means Committee passed a 4.2-cent per gallon increase in the state’s gas tax, which would be the first hike in nearly a quarter-century in the “Live Free or Die” state.

ENERGY/ENVIRONMENT

The US House overwhelmingly passed a measure giving relief to homeowners getting swamped with massive increases in federal flood insurance premiums because of a controversial change in the flood zone maps. The bill now heads to the Senate.

Lynn officials say a planned five-year trash hauling contract that institutes automatic collections will more than double the city’s recycling rate, which is among the lowest in the state.

MEDIA

Gatehouse Media is launching several versions of paywalls at some of their local papers to see what, if anything, sticks.

The editor of the Baltimore City Paper — purchased recently by the city’s biggest daily — asks in a New York Times op-ed whether alternative weeklies are dead.

Meet the Author

Gabrielle Gurley

Senior Associate Editor, CommonWealth

About Gabrielle Gurley

Gabrielle covers several beats, including mass transit, municipal government, child welfare, and energy and the environment. Her recent articles have explored municipal hiring practices in Pittsfield, public defender pay, and medical marijuana, and she has won several national journalism awards for her work. Prior to coming to CommonWealth in 2005, Gabrielle wrote for the State House News Service, The Boston Globe, and other publications. She launched her media career in broadcast journalism with C-SPAN in Washington, DC. The Philadelphia native holds degrees from Boston College and Georgetown University.

About Gabrielle Gurley

Gabrielle covers several beats, including mass transit, municipal government, child welfare, and energy and the environment. Her recent articles have explored municipal hiring practices in Pittsfield, public defender pay, and medical marijuana, and she has won several national journalism awards for her work. Prior to coming to CommonWealth in 2005, Gabrielle wrote for the State House News Service, The Boston Globe, and other publications. She launched her media career in broadcast journalism with C-SPAN in Washington, DC. The Philadelphia native holds degrees from Boston College and Georgetown University.

HISTORIC PRESERVATION

The Navy has begun harvesting white oak from an Indiana forest in preparation for the next round of repairs to the USS Constitution, which will be drydocked for repairs between 2014 and 2018.