Massachusetts is failing to properly staff and track hundreds of state boards, committees, and commissions, a Senate panel concluded in a report released Wednesday, resulting in what some call “zombie boards” that never meet.
The Senate Committee on Post Audit and Oversight discovered dozens of state panels that have not met or produced reports in years, alongside new committees that have not been able to start because of empty seats, while still other panels appear to be redundant. The review found that 48 boards are probably no longer needed either because they have completed their work or outlived their missions, such as one that issued its final report on the future of Boston Harbor beaches in the 1990s.
“I was surprised that we hadn’t taken action earlier,” said Senator Cynthia S. Creem, the Newton Democrat who chairs the Senate Committee on Post Audit and Oversight, who added that many people count on state boards to champion issues they care about. “I think it’s been neglected.”
The Senate researchers’ work was complicated, however, by the fact that the governor’s website for boards and commissions omitted some panels where the governor does not make appointments. And information for the roughly 700 boards that were listed was “often absent, incomplete, out-of-date and/or incorrect.”
“The Commonwealth’s current system for appointing commission members and monitoring commissions’ activities is inadequate,” the report found.
The Senate launched the review last spring after the Globe reported that more than one-third of the seats on state boards and commissions were either vacant or filled with holdovers whose terms had officially expired months or years ago — a figure that took many state officials by surprise. The Globe also found that some boards had not met in decades (including at least one with a member who was dead), while others struggled to gather a quorum because of the vacancies.
The problem is aggravated by the fact that Massachusetts appears to have far more boards than other states its size, according to a Globe survey of a dozen other states,making it difficult to keep track of them and fill all the vacant positions.
Senator Robert L. Hedlund, a Weymouth Republican on the post audit committee, said he believes lawmakers and the executive branch have become too eager to set up commissions and too reluctant to eliminate them when they are no longer useful.
“It seems as though government in general expands and it never really contracts,” said Hedlund, the assistant minority leader. “I would like us to be a little more serious when we form a commission and be judicious, so that when we do form a commission it is taken seriously.”
Officials in the governor’s office, which controls the majority of board appointments, said they are already working on ways to eliminate unneeded boards.
“We have made tremendous progress in deactivating boards and commissions that are no longer current, where it is within our power to do so,” said Heather Nichols, a spokeswoman in the governor’s office. “Where it is not, we are happy to work with the Legislature to sunset those boards and commissions that have already served out their purpose.”
Patrick administration staffers said they do the best they can to fill vacant positions, but noted that it can be challenging because the vast majority of positions are unpaid and require significant hours to attend meetings, often during the day. Many vacant seats are also controlled by state lawmakers and other officials outside the adminstration’s control.
The Senate review made a number of recommendations to address the problems, some of which would require legislation:
■ Requiring the governor’s office and departments to review whether commissions are riddled with vacancies, struggled to gather a quorum, have not met in a year, or are no longer needed;
■ Creating a sunset review commission to determine whether boards or commissions should be dissolved because they are redundant or defunct;
■ Streamlining the background check for new board members;
■ Giving the governor more flexibility to fill seats when he cannot find someone meeting all the requirements specified in state law;
■ Reappointing holdover members to new terms if new members cannot be found;
■ Making greater efforts to update the state’s boards and commissions website, as well as to add details on panels that are currently missing;
■ Posting meeting agendas, minutes, and reports for all commissions online;
■ Changing the law to automatically eliminate special commissions after they have issued their final reports.
But Hedlund, the Republican committee member, worried that the government has become so lax about following up on commissions that it probably will not follow through on the Senate panel’s recommendations either.
“It will be treated in the same way,” Hedlund predicted. “Tomororrow, it will be yesterday’s news.”