A state Senate panel is vowing to bring new scrutiny to about 700 state boards in Massachusetts, exploring the possibility of abolishing panels that have outlived their usefulness, consolidating others, or redefining their missions.
The news follows the Globe’s report last month that more than a third of the 4,800 seats on state boards and commissions were either empty or filled with holdover members whose term expired long ago. In addition, some of the boards hadn’t met in years, the Globe found.
“It should be an issue,” said Senator Cynthia Creem, the Newton Democrat who chairs the committee. Creem said she hopes the Senate Committee on Post Audit and Oversight could review more than a dozen boards before this year’s legislative session ends in January and take on the rest in future years.
“Sometimes these commissions sound like they are not even needed anymore.”
Senate President Therese Murray also suggested that some boards should be eliminated.
“There are some commissions that are worthy of the time and energy spent, but there are too many invented that don’t produce anything,” the Plymouth Democrat said in a statement.
Part of the issue is the sheer difficulty in filling so many seats. Massachusetts has far more boards and commissions than other states its size, overseeing everything from sprinkler fitters to a cranberry research center in East Wareham.
And the empty seats have made it difficult even for some necessary boards to do their jobs. Panels such as the Board of Respiratory Care, which licenses respiratory therapists, have had to repeatedly cancel meetings because of the lack of a quorum.
Meanwhile, some newer boards have struggled to get started because of a lack of members. A commission Patrick set up six years ago to help plan the festivities for the 400th anniversary of the landing of the Mayflower has yet to hold its first meeting because 10 of the 15 seats are vacant.
Other boards continue to exist legally even though they have not met for years. The African American Advisory Commission, established by Governor William F. Weld in 1993, hasn’t met since Governor Deval Patrick took office seven years ago and every members’ term expired in 2007. But Patrick never signed an executive order of his own doing away with the board.
The governor’s office, which is charged with filling most of the appointments, said the task is challenging in part because many of the seats are reserved for people who meet specific qualifications. One of the vacant positions on the nursing board, for instance, is reserved for a physician, while another is set aside for a licensed practical nurse in a long-term care setting.
Hundreds of other board members must first be recommended by outside groups before they can be appointed. And the vast majority of members on state boards are unpaid volunteers who are often asked to attend long meetings during the standard workday.
“It’s ponderous and slow work because not everyone wants to serve on those boards,” Patrick told reporters at the State House last month.
Nearly 41 percent of the 3,127 seats under his control were vacant or holdovers, according to the most recent count available. But the governor’s office said it has nearly 500 appointments or reappointments in the pipeline. “I am pleased with the progress we are making,” Patrick said.
Still, the governor said it is worth considering setting up a formal “sunset” process — under which boards are automatically terminated after a certain number of years unless the state finds evidence that they are still needed.
About half of other states already have some sort of sunset procedure for agencies or boards, though the details vary widely.
“I think it is worth looking at whether all of the boards serve a current need,” Patrick said.
The Senate previously approved legislation in 2011 that would set up a sunset review process as part of a broader government reform bill, but it was removed from the final version during negotiations with the House.
Patrick has proposed other measures to reduce the number of boards, including consolidating nearly 260 housing boards across the state into six regional panels, that have yet to be approved by lawmakers.
Two gubernatorial candidates also expressed concern about the sheer number of boards and vacancies in Massachusetts.
“I think the sunsetting process is a really good idea,” said Republican gubernatorial candidate Charlie Baker. “It would force everyone to engage in a discussion [about the boards] on some regular basis.”
But Baker also said the governor’s office should do more to make sure it fills seats on key boards, such as those that license and police professionals like nurses and respiratory therapists, so the work isn’t postponed. “Those positions need to be filled,” Baker said.
State Treasurer Steven Grossman, one of five Democrats running for governor, also said he thought it was worth examining whether some boards could be eliminated. “There are a very large number of boards,” Grossman said. “It is probably too many.”
Grossman said he also thought the state might be able to do more to recruit and retain members for the boards that remain. “If you are going to recruit people to serve on a board or a commission, you have got to make it meaningful and you’ve got to make it relevant,” he said.
House Speaker Robert DeLeo declined to comment through a spokesman.
Meanwhile, the Senate Committee on Post Audit and Oversight is still in the early stages of taking a look at the issue of state boards and hasn’t decided whether to hold hearings, according to a staff member.
But Creem said she hopes the committee can look at a small number of boards this year and issue a report before the legislative session ends in January.
“I thought we might do them on a rolling basis,” she said. “There are so many that we are not certainly going to be able to look at all of them at one time.”Todd Wallack can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @twallack.