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.