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The Boston Globe

Opinion

Scott Harshbarger

Independence crucial to state gambling commission

THE DEBATE over legalized gambling in Massachusetts is over, but we have only begun the most critical aspect of the law — its implementation.

Although I oppose the law, many of its negative effects can be mitigated by smart appointments and wise actions by a truly independent gambling commission.

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With the power to decide who gets licenses, where they are located, what the standards and rules of the game will be, as well as regulating casinos, the new commission - once appointed by the governor, attorney general, and treasurer - must act quickly in several key areas to protect the public interest and ensure public confidence.

Choose independence over connections. Commissioners must be selected on the merits - demonstrated qualifications, independence, leadership experience, as well as reputations for being tough but smart, balanced, and honest. It should not matter whether appointees are for, against, or neutral on casinos. The key is the commitment to do the right thing and to demonstrate independence of judgment.

View membership as a public service. This commission cannot be a career stepping stone. It should be seen strictly as fulfilling a public service obligation and as an opportunity to instill public confidence in the capacity of government to perform as an open, transparent, efficient, and effective overseer.

Quickly showcase independence. The commission chair must quickly send the signal that merit, independence, skill, character, and performance will be the only criteria that will guide decision-making by showcasing the best human-resources practices in hiring the team of advisers and consultants.

Create a code of ethics and conduct. Given the current level of cynicism toward Beacon Hill and the pressure this commission will face, commissioners must develop a comprehensive set of governance, ethics, and compliance policies as well as a comprehensive code of conduct for all employees, vendors, and license applicants.

Establish the process for success. The commission must produce a clear set of standards by which all applicants for casino and slot licenses will be evaluated so the Commonwealth can attract the best licensees. And applicants must know they will be judged solely on the merits of their applications.

Centralize law enforcement functions. The commission must centralize all the regulatory and enforcement functions and make it clear what the organizational chain of command will be. This a key piece of what is missing from the new law. It is more important that the major agency in charge be clearly identified than which agency it is, and that the lead organization have all the powers necessary to ensure centrality and unity of enforcement.

Gauge impact prior to action. On a parallel track, the commission must do what supporters failed to do by initiating an independent economic study of the costs and benefits to use as the baseline for evaluating the casino legislation and the commission’s performance. At present, there is no valid measure of economic benefits or costs. If the commission does not fill this informational vacuum, they will never control the expectations or reality.

Engage the public — for real. Hold a series of public hearings around the Commonwealth, particularly in and around potential casino locations. Doing so will create a heretofore nonexistent level of public education and awareness of the general issues and challenges ahead. The commission should develop an interactive website and social media capacity to further this dialogue where the modern public truly lives, agree to comply with the open meeting laws, and schedule an annual statewide conference to ensure the dialogue continues.

The hard work on casinos and slots begins now — with truly independent-minded commissioners willing to stand up for the Commonwealth and its best interests.

Scott Harshbarger, former Massachusetts attorney general and national president of Common Cause, is founder and president of Citizens for a Stronger Massachusetts.
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