State officials took the first steps yesterday toward creating an independent board with vast regulatory power over casino gambling, pledging that the selection process would be open and rigorous.
The stakes are high. The five-member gambling commission, established under the new law legalizing casinos in Massachusetts, will have broad authority over the industry, from awarding licenses to determining the payouts of slot machines.
“We have only one chance to get this right,’’ said Steven Grossman, the state’s treasurer, who is responsible for choosing one of the commission members.
The law gives Governor Deval Patrick, Attorney General Martha Coakley, and Grossman authority to make one appointment each and to agree on two additional appointments. They have four months to assemble the board.
The three officials announced yesterday that they will retain an outside firm to conduct a search for candidates.
“An independent search firm will help us select highly qualified candidates, ready for this challenge,’’ Patrick said in a statement.
The search will focus on candidates with professional experience in gambling regulation, as specified in the casino law, and will place a “high emphasis’’ on ethics.
‘This process will ensure that we actively seek out . . . the best possible candidates.’Martha Coakley, attorney general of Massachusetts
“No candidate will be chosen who has any conflicts of interest that could impact their ability to make the best and most independent decisions on behalf of the Commonwealth,’’ Patrick’s statement said.
The search firm will recommend finalists to state officials for their consideration.
Aware of the potential for corruption, lawmakers gave the commission great independence and authority in an effort to insulate it from the political process. But critics have voiced concern that the law gives the commission too much power.
Citizens for a Stronger Massachusetts, a group that opposes the casino bill, said it was encouraged by the government’s initial steps to naming overseers.
“The naming of these commissioners is perhaps the single most important decision these three elected officials will make,’’ said David Guarino, a spokesman for the group. “We are hopeful these positive steps indicate the powerful members of the gambling commission will be chosen on their merits and with a premium placed on independence, not insider connections.’’
Patrick will select the chairman, who will be paid $150,000 a year. Patrick and his senior staff have begun reviewing candidates and expect to make a choice as early as this month.
Other members will be paid $112,500.
Coakley, whose appointee must have experience in law enforcement and criminal investigations, said her office plans to enlist outside help to recommend applicants.
“Hiring qualified individuals with independence, experience, and integrity will be critical to the success of the new gaming commission,’’ she said. “This process will ensure that we actively seek out and thoroughly vet the best possible candidates to regulate the new gaming industry in the Commonwealth.’’
Grossman announced a five-member advisory panel to identify a short list of finalists for his appointee, who must have experience in corporate finance. The panel includes Jonathan Chiel, general counsel for John Hancock Financial Services, and Cathy Judd-Stein, director of policy for the state Lottery Commission.
Once the panel narrows the field, Grossman will interview applicants and make the final decision.
After the commission is established, it will probably face a host of competing bids for casino licenses. The bill allows for three casinos across the state: one in the Boston area; one for Western Massachusetts; and a third in Southeastern Massachusetts.
Casinos must win local approval.