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EDITORIAL

As new probe unfolds, time to abolish Suffolk probate

Felix Arroyo
Felix Arroyo The Boston Globe

The mysterious suspension of Felix D. Arroyo from his $134,692-a-year job as Suffolk register of probate, just a few years after the last scandal at the office, offers yet another opportunity to rethink this obscure but important agency.

Residents of Boston, Winthrop, Revere, and Chelsea rely on the Suffolk county registry of probate during hard times: after deaths and divorces, in the middle of fights over wills and child custody.

If there’s any logic to electing the official in charge of the registry of probate — and that’s debatable — then it’s so he or she can be held directly accountable if the office fails to provide those services with skill and sensitivity.

But most voters don’t use the registry in any given election cycle, and how are they supposed to know how it’s working when the court system is so tight-lipped? Arroyo, who took office after the embarrassing tenure of Patricia Campatelli, was suspended with pay, but the Massachusetts Trial Court won’t explain why.

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Previously, though, the state auditor found the office wasn’t keeping track of its assets or properly overseeing trust accounts that it controls on behalf of minors and individuals who can’t be located.

There’s a logic to handling personnel matters in private, but not when voters are expected to provide the accountability. The Trial Court ought to make public whatever information prompted Arroyo’s suspension. As long as voters are charged with picking mid-level managers in the court system, they need full transparency on its operations.

But that’s not enough. The state Legislature should be looking for a way to abolish the position and turn over its responsibility to appointed officials who can be hired on the basis of professional ability. Whatever the theory behind the tradition of electing registers, the reality is that it’s been a recipe for mediocrity and waste.

Time and again, elections for the registries have been decided on name recognition. Arroyo himself, a former Boston city councilor, won largely because he wasn’t Campatelli — who rarely went to work and was accused of assaulting an employee after a holiday party — and voters had heard of him.

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Not every position in government can be elected. Nor should they be. If the Legislature, which just voted itself a big pay raise, wants to demonstrate a commitment to good government, an easy place to start would be getting rid of salaries that seem to be nothing more than cushy sinecures for underemployed politicos.