Boston loves tradition, but one custom we can do without is the legendary incompetence of county government. Suffolk County Register of Probate Felix Arroyo’s inability to file paperwork or cash checks is the latest example.
Arroyo’s ineptitude was captured last week in reporting by the Boston Globe’s Andrew Ryan and Stephanie Ebbert:
They found: On any given day at the Suffolk Registry of Probate and Family Court, 20 to 30 files could go missing. Hundreds of thousands of dollars in unprocessed checks sat in boxes, stapled to filings, and stuffed in desk drawers. A section of the office designated for loose paperwork was overwhelmed by pleadings, orders, and judgments that numbered over 6,500.
Unwelcome news for Register Arroyo, who has been suspended with pay since February. But it was within the precedent established by his predecessor Patricia Campatelli, who was also removed from office after an investigation found that she labored a full 15 hours per week, which she mostly spent “taking smoking breaks, playing scratch tickets, looking at East Boston real estate on the Internet, and doing puzzles.” The highlight of her tenure was when a subordinate accused her of punching him out after a night of drinking.
The annals of Massachusetts county government are replete with similar examples.
Surely Governor Charlie Baker will remember when he, as Bill Weld’s Secretary of Administration and Finance, led the effort to abolish county government altogether.
In December 1996, the Globe reported that Worcester County tried to auction off one of its courthouses to pay a debt; Hampshire County sued Hampden County for not paying for prisoners housed in Hampshire; sheriffs from Worcester and Middlesex were doing time for corruption; and Middlesex had defaulted on debt.
County government, nevertheless, rolled right along and Secretary Baker had the reason. One word: “jobs.”
County government has been a patronage haven. Take a September 1981 Globe story, which reported that though the Middlesex County Highway Department was paying 47 engineers, only seven of them were actually registered professionals. Oh, and Middlesex County had no highways. State Senator George Bachrach asked "Why in the world do we have a county Highway Department when we have no county highways at a time city department of public works employees are being laid off?" Well, jobs of course.
Weld, Baker, and others were successful in getting rid of a good deal of county government in the 1990s. Without county commissioners, state prosecutors have been left with time on their hands. But as Arroyo and Campatelli show, what remains is hardly the efficient operation of government that people deserve.
In the 21st century, there is no reason for the jobs associated with county government – with the exception of district attorney and sheriff – to be elected. Clerks of court, probate, and deeds perform fundamental tasks, but they aren’t representative in any vital sense. The offices are the very definition of obscure and are usually won by a pol who earned name recognition in another office, and now often seeks higher pay and a more lucrative pension. These important ministerial functions would be better performed by professional administrators, perhaps appointed by the governor.
While we are considering Register Arroyo, let’s not forget Suffolk County Register of Deeds Stephen Murphy who engineered himself an income boost in the recent Beacon Hill pay raise legislation. Obviously this was a vital matter of state – Murphy had been on the job for weeks without a pay raise, having been elected in 2016. As for his administrative ability, he touted his experience with constituent services in his two decades on the Boston City Council. In 2015 when he was defeated in his bid for reelection, the Globe found that Murphy missed most council hearings in favor of time at his Florida condominium. Take care with the cocoa butter, Register Murphy.
Let’s say you and your spouse have reached the decision to divorce. You’re trying to keep it amicable but the months go by and nothing happens. Relations deteriorate, finances collapse, the kids suffer, you are wearing out your therapist, bile rises from your gut and settles permanently in your throat, you’re buying Kleenex in bulk. It’s the worst experience of your life. Until Felix Arroyo loses your paper work and you have to start all over again.