If you showed up for the Massachusetts Board of Respiratory Care’s January meeting in Boston, you might have found yourself alone.
For a fifth straight month, the meeting was canceled.
The problem? The board, which oversees thousands of workers who help patients with breathing problems, couldn’t muster the minimum of four members needed to conduct business because it had so many vacancies.
As recently as January, the seven-member board had just three members — one short of the minimum for a quorum. And one of the three was a holdover whose term officially ended in 2008 but remains on the board because he was never replaced.
“It was certainly frustrating,” said former longtime board member Armand Riendeau, who said the vacancies forced the board to repeatedly put off reviewing complaints against workers and other matters. “We recognized that our job was to protect members of the public and we didn’t have enough members to do what we needed.”
Massachusetts is facing a little noticed breakdown in democracy. More than one-third of seats on state boards and commissions are either vacant or occupied by people whose terms expired months or years ago, according to a Globe review last week. In all, the Globe counted 919 vacancies and 867 holdover members on nearly 700 boards that oversee everything from a cranberry research center to a commission studying postpartum depression.
“It’s very discouraging and embarrassing,” said former state inspector general Gregory Sullivan, who now works as research director at the Pioneer Institute in Boston. “It’s a bad reflection on state government that it’s not being taken care of.”
Part of the problem is the sheer number of boards in Massachusetts. Legislators often start special commissions as a way to study complicated issues or show interest in a topic, and they sometimes launch new boards at the request of industries that want to regulate their own. But state officials are often slow to eliminate boards that are no longer needed.
As a result, Massachusetts has significantly more boards and commissions than other states its size. A Globe survey of a dozen states with populations of at least 5 million found none had as many boards as Massachusetts. Four states — Michigan, Missouri, Minnesota, and Indiana — have only one-third as many boards as the Massachusetts.
Though the mission of some boards seems narrow — one meets once a year to hand out an award — many do important work of advising the administration and lawmakers. They police licensed businesses and professionals, and oversee billions of dollars in government spending at major agencies, including the University of Massachusetts system and the state Department of Transportation.
When one of these boards stumbles, it can have major consequences.
The state pharmacy board, for example, was blamed for failing to close a compounding pharmacy whose tainted steroids allegedly killed 64 people. The Globe later found the 11-member board met at least twice without a quorum in recent years and had a member who worked at one of the pharmacy’s sister companies. Today, the board has two vacancies and one holdover member.
Likewise, Easton’s housing authority board lacked the votes to fire its executive director because the governor’s office failed to appoint the crucial, tie-breaking member for seven years. Two board members tried unsuccessfully to remove Susan Horner as director because of concerns about her frequent absences and a declining condition of the organization’s apartments, but they needed a third vote. Horner finally resigned in 2010.
Staff in the governor’s office — which is responsible for the bulk of appointments to state boards — said they are working hard to restock the boards with 452 appointments or reappointments in the pipeline. The office recently filled two of the four vacancies on the respiratory care board, allowing the board to start meeting again in February.
But officials in Governor Deval Patrick’s administration say they also face a constant flow of resignations. The vast majority of board positions are unpaid and often require members to attend long meetings during business hours. Last month’s pharmacy board meeting started just after 8:30 a.m. on a Tuesday and lasted past 5 p.m.
“It is a challenge,” said Kendra Foley, who oversees the governor’s boards and commissions department. “It’s a time commitment. It’s volunteer work.”
But critics say the governor’s office isn’t doing enough. Several board members and outside observers said the office is painfully slow to make appointments, even when qualified candidates step forward.
The head of the state nurses association said the group submitted two possible nursing board candidates to the governor’s office last fall, but never heard back even though the 17-member board has six vacancies. The Board of Registration in Nursing, which licenses and disciplines nurses, was forced to cancel two meetings last year and postpone four disciplinary matters at a meeting last month for lack of a quorum.
“Not only are they letting the public down, they are letting nurses down,” said Donna Kelly-Williams, president of the Massachusetts Nurses Association, noting that some of the vacant seats are supposed to represent front-line nurses.
And the governor’s office has struggled to keep track of all the state panels. Officials didn’t realize that some boards had been defunct for years. Some rosters contained names of people who have long since resigned, moved away, or even died.
And the Patrick administration said it didn’t even know how many total vacancies and holdovers there were until after the Globe compiled the figures from 700 separate lists of boards maintained by the governor’s office, spurring the governor’s office to analyze its own data.
Since the state hasn’t historically tracked vacancy rates on boards, it’s difficult to compare Patrick’s performance with past governors. But former state officials who have had the job of handling appointments said they were surprised to learn that 37 percent of board seats were either vacant or occupied by people whose terms have expired.
“Keeping up with board vacancies shouldn’t be an insurmountable problem,” said Marty Linsky, a Harvard University instructor who helped handle appointments for William Weld’s administration in the 1990s. Linsky noted that people are often honored to serve on state boards and it can enhance their resumes.
Linsky said he doubted the Weld administration had as many unfilled seats as the Patrick administration, though he acknowledged the Patrick administration likely has to fill more positions because the number of boards has grown.
“You need competent staff people and good record-keeping,” he said.
However, Beth Myers, chief of staff under former governor Mitt Romney, said Patrick and other state leaders are understandably wary about moving too quickly to fill seats because it’s often difficult to remove members once they have been appointed.
“There is the tension of wanting to get the positions filled and filling them with the right people,” said Myers, who said she wasn’t sure whether the number of vacancies and holdovers was lower during the Romney years.
Making the job of recruiting board members harder, the Legislature increasingly sets aside seats for people with very specific requirements, said Foley, who handles appointments for Patrick. One empty seat on the nursing board is reserved for a licensed practical nurse who works in a long-term care setting, while another is set aside for a physician.
“I feel like seat criteria have gotten more and more specific,” said Foley, noting that she recently had to turn away two nurses interested in serving on the board because they didn’t meet the requirements for the available seats.
Some other states try to control the number of boards by requiring the Legislature to periodically reauthorize them as part of a “sunset” process, giving them a chance to eliminate boards that are no longer needed. But individual boards often have strong defenders. In Illinois, Governor Pat Quinn signed an order last year eliminating 75 of its nearly 400 state boards and commissions because they were duplicative or no longer meeting, but the state Senate rejected the measure.
In Massachusetts, state Senator Richard Moore of Uxbridge has repeatedly proposed creating a sunset process without success; it was approved by the Senate in 2011 as part of a government reform bill, but omitted from the final version. And the governor’s office couldn’t think of any systematic effort in Massachusetts to weed out boards that are no longer needed — even though state officials readily agree that some panels have outlived their usefulness.
For instance, the Legislature never abolished the Water Infrastructure Finance Commission after it delivered its final report on the state’s water supply in 2010 and stopped meeting. So the governor’s office continues to list it on its website with a link inviting the public to apply to serve on the board.
State Senator James Eldridge, who wrote the bill that established the commission, said he forgot to add language eliminating the commission after its work was done. Eldridge said he plans to correct the problem and is considering crafting legislation to review whether all boards are still needed, particularly after learning from the Globe that some have been defunct for years.
“If you have a lot of defunct boards and commissions, it sends a message that we don’t care or aren’t serious about an issue,” said Eldridge, an Acton Democrat. “Once the life of a commission is done, it should cease to exist.”
Other zombie boards have lasted even longer. The advisory board on continuing education in nursing hasn’t met in at least 17 years and one of its board members died eight years ago. But it was listed on the governor’s list of active boards until last month, when the Globe asked about it.
The Patrick administration has proposed modest measures to reduce the number of panels, including a bill that would eliminate the board for television technicians and combine others supervising electrologists, barbers, and cosmetologists. And two years ago, Patrick proposed consolidating nearly 260 housing authority boards across the state into six after scandals at a handful of boards, though lawmakers have yet to act on the idea.
But Patrick has also created new committees with executive orders of his own, including a commission to help organize the 2020 celebration of the 400th anniversary of the Mayflower landing. Six years after creating the group, the state has only filled 10 of the 15 seats — to the chagrin of some local officials. Because of the vacancies, the board has yet to hold its first meeting.
Other boards are stacked with holdover members whose terms officially expired long ago. For instance, the 19-member Nutrition Board, which advises the state on potential legislation, listed Kenelm Coons as a member, even though his term expired in 1992 and he hasn’t attended a meeting in more than two decades. Coons, who now lives in Maryland, said he had no idea he was still listed as a board member. Two other members said they haven’t attended meetings in more than a decade.
After the Globe asked questions about the board list, the governor’s office deleted the names of eight holdovers and labeled the seats as vacant instead.
Even the board’s chairwoman, Rena Prendergast, said she didn’t know who was officially on the board, and admitted that it’s a struggle to find people willing to serve. Her own term expired 16 years ago.
“It can be hard to find volunteer candidates who are able to find time away from work to join the board,” said Prendergast. “We talk about it almost every meeting.”
The state has typically done a better job of filling seats at high-profile paid boards like the one overseeing the implementation of the casino gambling law. But many lower-profile boards, such as the respiratory board, don’t get the same level of attention.
“The lack of an urgency to fill board vacancies is very disconcerting,” said Gina Farquharson, treasurer of the Massachusetts Society for Respiratory Care, which represents thousands of respiratory therapists. “We don’t feel validated when we are ignored.”
Faced with chronic vacancies, the seven-member respiratory board met for years with only two or three members — including once shortly after the attorney general issued statewide guidance in February 2013 that made it clear the board needed at least four people to meet.
After the board belatedly learned about the guidance, it stopped meeting without a quorum — and was forced to cancel one meeting after another. Last year, the board canceled 9 out of 12 meetings because of the vacancies.
Riendeau, the former longtime board member, faulted the governor’s office for failing to promptly fill empty seats, even when board members recommended candidates. “We felt it was a higher priority than perhaps the governor’s office did,” said Riendeau.
But perhaps no one is more distressed by the respiratory board’s quorum problem than Ibraltino Andrade, a respiratory therapist from Brockton. The board voted to suspend his license in February 2013 after he was charged with a crime, even though the board didn’t have a legal quorum and hadn’t yet heard Andrade’s response. (Andrade said the charges were ultimately dismissed, but declined to go into detail.)
Worse, Andrade, 34, did not have an opportunity to ask the board to reconsider its decision right away because the board kept canceling meetings and putting off votes.
“We’ve been waiting six months for a hearing,” said Andrade’s attorney, Joseph Doktor, as he and Andrade waited to meet with the board last week. After a closed-door hearing, the board agreed to begin the process of reinstating Andrade’s license with probation, Doktor said.
But, in the meantime, Andrade has suffered financially. He has not been able to work for more than a year and has fallen behind on his mortgage — all because of an improper vote.
“You can’t work without a license,” he said.