Fear and Loathing (Loathing Anyway) In the County Court House

The new Cambridge Superior Court House, with its louvered windows, circular court rooms and 21 stories of tinted security glass, textured feroconcrete and stainless steel, is the very last word in court-house design. But inside those acoustically balanced halls of justice, the personnel and practices of Middlesex County government have not changed much since the bad old days when men in pin-striped suits traded political favors in smoke-filled rooms. Balding attorneys and paunchy politicians still hover in the hallways. Superior Court judges cling to their traditional summer long vacations even though the new building's air-conditioning system makes the respite obsolete. And the triumvirate of commissioners empowered to appoint most of the county's 2200 employees feuds with itself more bitterly than ever.

"The guy is irrational," Michael E. McLaughlin, chairman of the Middlesex County commission, says, characterizing one of his fellow commissioners, S. Lester Ralph. "He wants to be the total dominating force. He reminds me of Adolf Hitler...If you're in his way, I truly believe Lester Ralph would push you right out a window."

John L. Danehy, who rounds out the three member board, calls Ralph the "type of man who talks out of both sides of his mouth." "He lies so often he doesn't know when he's telling the truth," Danehy adds.

Ralph, a commissioner for four years and mayor of Somerville since 1969, says his colleagues think "the county exists for their own political advantage--the well-being of the county is absolutely irrelevant to them."

What prompts three normally discrete politicians to leap to such rhetorical extremes? In large part the answer is patronage, a dragon each commissioner claims to have had a part in slaying.

McLaughlin maintains that before 1975 "Ralph would just sit in his office and hire people. That was it. He was everything, judge and jury." Ralph derived his strength, McLaughlin insists, from the acquiescence of Paul Tsongas, a former commissioner and aspiring politican whose "interest wasn't in Middlesex County." When Tsongas left the county for Congress in 1975, the two remaining commissioners, Ralph and Danehy, were left to find someone for the vacancy, with the Middlesex clerk of courts acting as tie-breaker. McLaughlin says Ralph hoped to perpetuate his power by appointing a political ally who had contributed $1000 to Ralph's abortive campaign for state attorney general in 1974. But Danehy and clerk of courts cast their ballots for McLaughlin, then a state representative, instead. Ralph "stormed out of the meeting, " McLaughlin says, and he refused to attend the organizational meeting where a chairman was to be chosen. Launching a career as what McLaughlin calls "an obstructionist," Ralph fired off an angry press release in which he claimed that the caliber of people then in power at the county courthouse (Danehy and McLaughlin) made him conclude that county government could not work and should be scrapped.

Danehy faults Ralph for being "a very difficult man to get along with--he wants everything his own way." He says Ralph originally campaigned for county commissioner as an opponent of county government, but that he "quickly changed his tune" when he began enjoying the vast patronage at his disposal as a commissioner. Ralph reverted to his old stand against the county, Danehy asserts, only after McLaughlin's appointment undermined his position as the "sole say-so" on the board.

Danehy paints Ralph as an intolerant egomaniac. "He wants to be the mayor of Middlesex County," Danehy says. "Lester is quite happy so long as he can run the whole show."

Ralph responds that he never actually called for the elimination of county government until two years ago. He and Tsongas ran for commissioner in 1972, he says, opposing the way in which the county was administered at that time. Ralph claims he tried for two years to make the system work, but he finally lost hope because of McLaughlin's and Danehy's patronage.

Specific allegations about patronage are numerous but almost impossible to prove. Danehy says Ralph engineered the appointment of his "right-hand man" as superintendent of buildings. McLaughlin calls that man "nothing but a political hack and Ralph's campaign fund-raiser." Yet one of Ralph's partisans in the courthouse claims the superintendent "put in more hours in this building than any department head ever has or ever will." Ralph refers to him as "one of the most decent and capable gentlemen I have ever met since being in government."

The problematic nature of patronage is underscored by the fact that McLaughlin appointed and authorized a raise for his former legislative aide, a man he calls his "closest friend." The office which the commissioner bestowed upon his buddy was that of head executive assistant in maintenance--the same job McLaughlin accuses Ralph of having created for a friend. McLaughlin defends the appointment and pay boost, claiming the employee does his assigned work and has "a ton of experience."

Only one-half of the patronage problem stems from hiring practices. Ralph charges that McLaughlin and Danehy have engaged in the wholesale firing of good workers to make room for their political cronies. McLaughlin counters that in the two years he has served on the county commission, 20 people have been fired, but only four of them were dismissed by the commissioners directly, and all four lost their jobs on the recommendation of their department heads and the personnel director. Ralph claims these recommendations are meaningless, especially since the position of personnel director was created by Danehy and McLaughlin over Ralph's abstention.

If patronage constitutes the biggest source of contention among the commissioners, it is not the only one. McLaughlin takes Ralph to task for apathy and irresponsibility, saying "He hasn't proposed one thing to help Middlesex County--not an idea in almost two years." Danehy attacks him for never having filed a bill in the legislature. They both call him a spendthrift and blame him for Somerville's skyrocketing property tax, which has risen from $199.70 per $1000 to $237.60 in the last year. McLaughlin says that in the two years before becoming a commissioner, he watched Ralph drive the county budget up 25 percent. During his two-year tenure, McLaughlin credits himself and Danehy with holding the budget to a 0.75 per cent increase.

Ralph refutes these charges by pointing to his work with Tsongas before 1975, "when," he says, "it was possible to accomplish something." In those years the commissioners reduced the patronage-ridden engineering department staff by more than one-third, cut the dog office from three men to one, pushed for the completion of the court house and closed the costly Middlesex County Training School, an institution for truant youths. Ralph says that McLaughlin's budget claims are "at very best a half truth" because the influx of federal revenue sharing funds in recent years has altered the county budget without any help from the commissioners. He resents the spendthrift tag. While county assessments have climbed 97 percent in the four years before his election, they have risen just 5 per cent in the four years since.

Though legally bound to convene just three times a year, county commissioners meet weekly. Surprisingly, in the face of such lax requirements, a favorite accusation for the commissioners to hurl at each other is sloth. "The only no-show employee left in the county is Lester Ralph," McLaughlin claims. Danehy estimates that Ralph spends 30 to 45 minutes per week on county business, while he credits McLaughlin with putting in a full 40-hour week to earn his annual $9500 stipend. Danehy himself says he spends a day or two every week at the courthouse.

Time logged in the office, however, does not necessarily provide an accurate indicator of actual work done. Roberta C. Smith, Ralph's executive assistant, says the mayor works on county business during much of his time in Somerville City Hall. She claims her boss spends just as much time in the courthouse as Danehy, and charges that McLaughlin devotes up to 90 per cent of his courthouse time to building a state-wide political organization. Ralph says McLaughlin spends his time "planning his next bid for office," rather than working on county business. McLaughlin, an unsuccessful contender for lieutenant governor in 1974, makes no secret of his ambition to run for governor or some other constitutional office in 1978, but he insists his county business keeps him occupied during the working day.

Unrestricted by civil service regulations, the county commissioners enjoy wide latitude in adjusting salaries of county employees. Not surprisingly, McLaughlin and Danehy chose not to adjust salaries of county employees. Not surprisingly, McLaughlin and Danehy chose not to adjust Smith's pay ($14,700 per year) last December, when they authorized a raise for their own executive assistants to $18,500. McLaughlin argues that Smith lacks the "background" of the other two and that she functions mostly as a secretary.

Ralph claims that this raise and other personnel decisions were signed into law in private meetings between Danehy and McLaughlin, not in open session as prescribed by law. He has brought a suit against his fellow commissioners for violating the state's Open Meeting Law, which forbids members of policy-making boards at the state, county or local level to discuss public business anywhere other than at a public meeting.

Though McLaughlin and Danehy protest that they uphold the Open Meeting Law to the point of avoiding even social contact outside the courthouse, Ralph's suit accuses them of holding private business meetings before rubber-stamping their decisions in public. The minutes of the public sessions show that on seven occasions since McLaughlin joined the board, Ralph has arrived on time and waited as long as an hour for a second member to appear, before adjourning the meeting for lack of a quorum. In every instance, the other commissioners arrived soon after Ralph's own adjournment and held their own meeting. McLaughlin says he and Danehy often do not come to the meetings until an hour after the posted starting time because the first hour is devoted to paper signing and informal discussion, not substantive work.

The minutes also record Ralph as absent from 21 meetings since April, 1975 (as opposed to 12 absences for Danehy and eight for McLaughlin). Ralph claims that several of his unexplained absences were actually misrecorded cases of his adjourning the meeting before McLaughlin and Danehy arrived.

The minutes are frequently in error, Ralph asserts, because they are compiled by a member of McLaughlin's staff and subject to approval by a majority of the three-man board. Ralph has not signed the minutes for any meeting since July 1, 1975. "They never show me the minutes," he complains, adding that the other commissioners only permit him to see the weekly journal's last page, which is reserved for signatures. Predictably, McLaughlin denies this allegation.

Ralph also argues that many of the hirings listed in the minutes were actually made by McLaughlin and Danehy outside the meetings. He could not cast an informed vote on these appointments anyway, he contends, since the other commissioners refuse to let him see personnel papers and resumes. Again, McLaughlin disputes Ralph's charges, insisting he signs personnel papers only during the meetings.

The minutes are blatantly one-sided in their treatment of absenteeism. While the record for April 20, 1976 notes sympathetically that Danehy "was unable to be present," it adds somewhat less ceremoniously, "Commissioner Ralph being absent." Ralph and McLaughlin were equally non-existent at the meeting of July 13, 1976, but the minutes, "Paul F. Ford, under order dated Jan. 13, 1976, acted for Commissioner McLaughlin--Commissioner Ralph being absent."

This last entry in the minutes brings up another cause for dispute. McLaughlin and Danehy say county commissioners can have their executive assistants act in meetings as surrogates for them, provided that a majority of the board approves this provisional transfer of voting power every year. Ralph interprets the law to mean that an executive assistant can act for an absent commissioner only if the remaining two commissioners authorize him to do so, and that this authorization must be renewed for each meeting. If Ralph is correct, then many of the meetings held in the last two years have been illegal, for he has not consented to transfer anyone's power since his troubles with McLaughlin and Danehy began. Ralph has included the whole question of acting commissioners in his suit, inviting the courts to resolve it.

The controversy over surrogate commissioners reached its most emotional point at a meeting last November 23 when Paul F. Ford and Thomas F. Gibson, executive assistants for McLaughlin and Danehy respectively, acted on behalf of their bosses. Ralph challenged the acting commissioners' credentials, claiming that none of the commissioners had appointed surrogates that year. The minutes record the following interchange:

Ford: They were appointed in January.

Gibson: Two commissioners voted.

Ralph: Each man has to get two other names--since I didn't sign for anyone, there are none!

Gibson: I would have to get a legal opinion on that.

Ralph: Shit on your legal opinion! You wouldn't know a law if you tripped over it!"

The Reverend Ralph, an Episcopal minister since 1958, concedes that this decidedly non-sacerdotal language is accurately quoted, but insists the passion of the moment justified his outburst. His executive assistant recalls indignantly several insulting remarks she says McLaughlin and Danehy made about Ralph in open meetings, remarks never recorded in the minutes.

Most observers around the court house predict a speedy resolution to Ralph's suit, perhaps involving an out-of-court settlement. But the end of the legal battle will probably do nothing to restore political peace in Middlesex county. Ralph and McLaughlin are ensconced in office until 1980. Danehy, who must face the voters in two years, stands an excellent chance of re-election. Barring an unexpected resignation or a still more surprising rapprochement, it looks as if the Middlesex county commissioners are going to have each other to kick around for several years to come.