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adrian walker

Chelsea’s options

What’s next for the Chelsea Housing Authority?

The present, as we know, is a mess. Multiple agencies are investigating. The agency’s deposed prince, Michael McLaughlin, has had a former attorney general, Scott Harshbarger, plead to the governor for lenient treatment, and now we find out that he has had dozens of conversations with another insider, Lieutenant Governor Tim Murray, since the scandal broke. I don’t think they were trading Thanksgiving recipes.

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Murray issued the usual disclaimers yesterday, insisting that he had never had an inappropriate relationship with McLaughlin, that they are just old friends.

All of that may be true, but McLaughlin’s easy access to the highest reaches of state government only added to the pressure to act forcefully. The governor wants a receiver appointed, and apparently that job is going to fall to Judith Weber, a housing consultant in Newton. According to her resume, Weber has never run a public housing authority, though she has decades of working in property management and advising nonprofits.

No disrespect to Weber, but I had a much stronger candidate in mind: Harry Spence. In a distinguished public career, he has been the receiver for the Boston Housing Authority and the city of Chelsea. Much better choice to run the Chelsea Housing Authority than a consultant who’s never run a public agency, am I right?

When I called Spence to tell him he was my nominee, I wasn’t surprised that he demurred. I was surprised by why.

“They don’t need a receiver,’’ Spence said. “You need a receiver when operations are totally messed up and the agency is dysfunctional. As far as we know, no one has alleged that about Chelsea. If the issue is McLaughlin’s outsized salary, then what you need is a new head and an honest board, not a receiver.’’

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There’s no question that the Chelsea Housing Authority could use a strong infusion of integrity right now. But what Spence also correctly implied - and I will come right out and say - is that Governor Deval Patrick may well have overreacted when he decided that the state needed to take over. In fact, appointing an outside caretaker may weaken the parts of the agency that are actually working.

This is not the first time Patrick has decided to get tough in the wake of bad news. Once criticized for diffidence, he has gone to the other extreme, firing the parole board, slapping down the board of higher education, and now taking over the Chelsea Housing Authority. He has drawn raves for all these moves. It took him more than two years to understand this, but people love a governor who’s clearly in charge.

No one would deny that Chelsea is a mess. But at heart the issue here is cronyism (at its worst) not incompetent management. The issue is that McLaughlin was a man who could charm even the likes of Harshbarger into believing that he deserved what he got, that it wasn’t that bad, that he was somehow worth every penny. Now that he is out, Chelsea’s Housing Authority has a desperately needed chance to start over. But an interim head from inside - someone who isn’t implicated in the mess - would probably make more sense than a State House hire from Newton.

An unfolding scandal presents a huge challenge, in that an agency must continue to function even as multiple investigations are going on. In essence, Chelsea and the state are trying to fix the CHA while the work of unraveling what’s wrong with it is still going on.

But that’s all the more reason not to fix the parts that don’t appear to be broken. McLaughlin and his undeserved largesse will be appropriately dealt with. But the mess in Chelsea will only be addressed by a real plan for moving forward, not the quickie, short-term appointment of the first “housing expert’’ in the administration’s Rolodex. It’s good that the governor has learned to flex his muscle, but now he needs to figure out when.

Adrian Walker is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at walker@globe.com. Folllow him on Twitter @Adrian_Walker.

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