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Plan calls for another board to eliminate useless state boards

Massachusetts is plagued with unnecessary state boards, and hundreds of seats on them are going unfilled. Now, some lawmakers have brainstormed a fix that would warm the heart of any shrewd bureaucrat: create another board to eliminate boards.

The lawmakers have filed legislation proposing to create a "sunset advisory board" that would issue recommendations, including whether to dissolve some state boards, such as those that have been termed "zombies" because they go years without even meeting.

"I was looking for a vehicle to have these things end," said state Senator Cynthia S. Creem of Newton, who filed the bill after overseeing a Senate committee that reviewed the issue last year.

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"If I'm appointed to a committee and that committee's never going to vote or even meet, that's kind of a waste of time," she said. "You need an end date. It's more transparency, better government."

The new board would recommend the termination of boards that have accomplished or outlived their goals; have redundant purposes; have vacancies for more than one-third of their seats; have not met in more than a year; or have been unable to get a quorum for more than a year.

Some other states have measures in place to automatically eliminate unneeded boards, but Massachusetts — which has many more boards than other states its size — does not. State officials here are slow to take steps to get rid of boards. And prior proposals to establish a sunset process have been rejected by legislators.

Another bill, also filed by Creem, would automatically eradicate special boards and commissions — those created to study or investigate a specific matter — within 60 days after they complete their final report. (It could, in fact, end up "sunsetting" the sunset advisory board.)

To address the problem of unfilled seats on boards, the bill would allow for seats — most of which are unpaid positions — to be filled by individuals who meet just some, rather than all, the requirements.

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The problem of the state's proliferation of inactive boards was first exposed in April 2014 when a Globe review found more than one-third of seats were either empty or held by holdovers, people whose terms have expired.

As of April 2014, the state's website listed 698 boards with a total of 4,850 seats. There were 919 vacancies, accounting for 18.9 percent of seats, and 867 holdovers, accounting for 17.9 percent of seats.

Now there are fewer vacant seats, but more holdovers. As of Sept. 14, the state's website listed 642 boards with a total of 4,093 seats. There were 558 vacancies, accounting for 13.6 percent of seats, and 905 holdovers, accounting for 22.1 percent of seats.

Governor Charlie Baker, who is responsible for most of the appointments, inherited the headache of unneeded boards, which appears to have existed for many years. Baker's office said it had not eliminated any boards since he took office in January, but it has made about 300 appointments so far.

The administration is "evaluating all boards to review their relevance and responsibilities, and may recommend eliminating boards that are no longer pertinent," said Elizabeth Guyton, a spokeswoman for the governor.

In some cases, vacancies have forced boards to cancel some meetings because they failed to reach a quorum, while other boards, including several health licensing boards, have met and made decisions without a quorum, raising questions about their validity.

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Some boards have specific assignments that potentially affect few residents.

For example, one board has the specific task of helping to oversee the preservation and operation of the schooner Ernestina, a ship donated by the people of Cape Verde and docked in New Bedford that has been designated as the state's official vessel. Another one oversees a cranberry research center in East Wareham.

But other boards — like state college and university trustee boards, public transportation boards, and one that oversees state employee pension investments — advise state officials and legislators or oversee government spending, licensed businesses, and professionals, including doctors and nurses.

Keeping seats filled can be a challenge because most of the positions are voluntary and there are specific requirements to fill some seats.

The state has typically done a better job of filling seats at more prominent, paid boards.

Both pending bills have been referred to the State Administration and Regulatory Oversight Committee.

The bill that would automatically eradicate special boards and commissions within 60 days after they complete their final reports is a bit further along. Legislators gave it a positive push forward this month, adding it to a supplemental budget currently under review.

Senator James Eldridge, Senate vice chairman of the Administration Committee, said he hoped lawmakers would find ways to fix the problem "over the next year."

Eldridge, an Acton Democrat, said he expects the Legislature and governor to work together to try to resolve the issue, but he hopes Baker will take the reins. He suggested that the governor include ideas to address the issue in his budget proposal in January.

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"It would be terrific if Governor Baker would take the lead," he said.


Matt Rocheleau can be reached at matthew.rocheleau@globe-.com. Follow him on Twitter @mrochele