For Arroyo, probate job no soft landing pad
Controversy renews questions about electing obscure county officials
This wasn’t how the story was supposed to end. When Felix Arroyo was elected Suffolk County Register of Probate in 2014, the former Boston city councilor was supposed to sail off into obscurity, collecting a six-figure salary for a post no one pays attention to and then enjoying the spoils of a nice public pension in retirement.
That is the well-worn path of washed-up pols who have found comfortable refuge in a set of obscure, but usually very secure, elected county jobs. The degree of comfort afforded by the posts – combined with the fact that they are often a final, well-paid resting place for former pols – has led them to be referred to by some insiders as the “velvet coffin.”
But it has not been a restful few months for Arroyo.
In early February, he was placed on administrative leave by leaders of the state Trial Court, who charged that the office he oversees, which is in charge of divorce, wills, and child custody records, was badly mismanaged, with missing files and hundreds of thousands of dollars in unprocessed checks. A report prepared for the Trial Court described an office in “procedural meltdown,” a situation that it said “created chaos for not only litigants but the judicial staff as well.”
Standing on the steps of the Edward Brooke Courthouse, Arroyo addressed supporters on Monday from a lectern outfitted with a campaign-style placard that read “STANDWITHFELIX.COM,” promoting a website collecting donations for his legal representation.
Serious charges are being leveled on both sides, and it’s important to get at the truth. But the standoff is also obscuring a larger truth: There is no good reason why we hold elections to fill administrative jobs that few voters have any understanding of and that candidates are rarely well-qualified to fill.
“These absolutely should not be elected positions,” said Pam Wilmot, executive director of Common Cause Massachusetts. “They should be appointed and accountable to folks who are higher profile and able to look over their shoulder.”
“They’re a target for pension-seeking pols,” said Maurice Cunningham, a political science professor at the University of Massachusetts Boston, about the county positions.
In Suffolk County, the posts have become a favored soft landing for Boston city councilors who get broomed out by voters or lose races for higher office.
Maura Hennigan forfeited her council seat when she challenged then-Mayor Tom Menino in 2005. She found her way back onto the public payroll the following year by getting elected Suffolk County Superior Court Clerk for Criminal Business.
Just how light can the lifting be in the county posts?
Steve Murphy lost his Boston council seat in 2015, but he did not spend long in the wilderness. In 2016, another former Boston city councilor, Mickey Roache, announced he was giving up his post as Suffolk County Register of Deeds (a seat he won after a failed bid for mayor). It took a seven-way Democratic primary splitting up the vote for Murphy to eke his way to victory with just over 30 percent of the total vote.
He landed in the office just in time to win a pay raise. The salary for the Suffolk deeds post is connected by statute to judges’ pay, which got a bump when lawmakers attached a judicial raise to a vote to raise their own salaries. His pay shot up by nearly $20,000 to $142,000.
Arroyo is not the first one in the probate position to run into trouble. His predecessor, Patricia Campatelli, lasted less than two years in the post, agreeing to resign in late 2014 after spending most of that year on paid administrative leave after allegedly slugging an employee at an office holiday party and while facing other charges over lax work habits.
Campatelli’s short tenure interrupted the long hold of one-time Boston city councilors on the seat. Before her, the post was held by former city councilor Richard Iannella, who won the seat when it was given up by another former city councilor.
With few people having any sense of what these offices do, votes are often cast for the down-ballot positions entirely based on name recognition. In 2014, while campaigning for the probate position at a Jamaica Plain ward caucus, Arroyo joked that when his son, also named Felix, was elected to the city council in 2009, many voters probably thought they were choosing his father. Now back in the hunt for votes himself after a number of years out of office, the elder Arroyo said this time he was likely to be confused for his son.
Electing the person who manages the county deeds or probate records makes no more sense than would voting on the person to manage the registry of motor vehicles or run the state revenue department.
“Management is not something you select by the ballot box,” said Wilmot. “You select for representation. What we have now are elections that are not very effective for positions that no one really understands. The result has been incident after incident of mismanagement.”“It’s time to change the process,” she said, but added that she doesn’t hold out much hope for reform. One reason: The state legislators who would have to vote to end the practice of electing the chief administrators of the county positions may have designs on winning such a job themselves one day.
“The public deserves so much better,” said Cunningham, the UMass Boston political scientist. “You can’t have respect for government with this sort of thing going on. This is the Democrats’ contribution to people believing government doesn’t work.”