When former Mayor Tom Menino needed to hire a lead attorney with the gravitas to represent the entire City of Boston, he turned to retired Marine Corps Colonel William Sinnott, an accomplished state and federal prosecutor who oversaw peacekeeping and security duties in Bosnia and Iraq. When new Mayor Martin Walsh faced the same decision, he tapped his friend Eugene O’Flaherty, a Chelsea politician known for dead-of-night budget amendments and political payback. This pick doesn’t inspire much confidence.
Walsh and O’Flaherty, both sons of Irish immigrants, came up in the state Legislature together. They each put a high value on loyalty. But appointing the volatile O’Flaherty to a position that demands maturity and measured judgment is loyalty to a fault. In 2012, O’Flaherty showed his true colors when he tried to strip the Chelsea district court from the administrative oversight of an experienced judge. The judge’s crime? She had disciplined a court employee who was also a political ally of O’Flaherty.
It’s never good when state lawmakers muck around in the judiciary. Look no further than the state Probation Department. Three former Probation officials are awaiting trial in federal court for their alleged roles in devising a rigged system that centered on the hiring and promotion of the cronies of state legislators. A 2010 independent commission report on the matter cited O’Flaherty on a list of the Legislature’s top 20 recipients of campaign contributions from Probation Department employees. It’s not illegal. But it doesn’t look good, either.
Boston’s lead attorney — or corporation counsel — oversees the work of more than 50 attorneys and paralegals. Sinnott was good at insulating his staff against political machinations. O’Flaherty, however, looks more like the kind of guy you might want to watch out for than the guy you entrust with the keys to the office. O’Flaherty’s past attempts to water down legislation that would stiffen penalties for suspected drunken drivers who refuse to take breathalyzer tests only adds to a sense of uneasiness about this appointment.
On Wednesday, Mayor Walsh said that O’Flaherty suffers “an unfair rap’’ that stems, in part, from chairing the Legislature’s complex and controversial Judiciary Committee. Walsh called O’Flaherty someone he “could trust 100 percent’’ and praised him as a skilled attorney who is “measured and wise.’’ Chippy might be a better description. O’Flaherty is known around here as the guy who fantasized — in print — about kicking the “arse’’ of Globe editor (then columnist) Brian McGrory. Measured and wise, my “arse.’’
Walsh had better be right about O’Flaherty. At any given time, the city’s corporation counsel could be in settlement discussions over multimillion dollar lawsuits, aiding in internal affairs investigations of rogue police officers, and providing in-depth advice to schools and other city departments on ways to minimize the risk of legal exposure. The mayor, after all, isn’t the corporation counsel’s only client. O’Flaherty is the attorney for an entire city. And he has a long way to go to earn the public’s trust.
There’s another appointment to watch. This week, Walsh named former city councilor Felix G. Arroyo as chief of a consolidated Health and Human Services Department. Walsh’s current plan calls for the city’s quasi-independent Public Health Commission to be part of the new department under Arroyo’s oversight.
Arroyo, a former opponent in the preliminary election, helped Walsh to victory in the final. He’s a good fit for the part of the portfolio that focuses on city services to Boston’s youth, elderly, and disabled residents. And Arroyo might even be the guy to solve the longstanding problem of erratic quality at the city’s community and recreational centers. But public health — which includes the city’s emergency medical response function — is a highly specialized field that involves training in epidemiology, biostatistics, health delivery systems, pandemics, clinical operations, surveillance of emergency room data, and much more.
The Walsh camp originally indicated that public health director Barbara Ferrer would report to Arroyo under the new department structure. That was concerning. Whatever Arroyo’s skills, he doesn’t hold a doctorate in public health or boast extensive training in the discipline. Ferrer, however, does.
On Wednesday, Walsh clarified the matter. He said that Ferrer would not be reporting to Arroyo on day-to-day matters. But it is likely that Arroyo would represent the overall interests of the Public Health Commission in a retooled and downsized cabinet structure.
Restructuring City Hall is Walsh’s business. But the last thing the city needs is another layer of bureaucracy in the event of an emergency.
Lawrence Harmon can be reached at email@example.com.