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An unneeded antique: Massachusetts' Executive Council

History-laden Massachusetts maintains many relics from colonial times but few are less valuable and more costly than the state's Executive Council. Yet for reasons more political than practical, the eight-member elective body lingers on.

The Executive Council, or Governor's Council, as it is often called, was created more than three centuries ago to advise the early governors, who were appointed by the King of England. Its members were elected by Massachusetts colonists, and provided some form of direct representation.

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In the early years it met a particular need, but that considerably lessened after the American revolution, when Massachusetts achieved statehood and elected its own chief executive and legislature.

For decades the council has been little more than a governmental fifth wheel.

In November 1964 Massachusetts voters approved by a 2-to-1 margin an initiative petition that stripped the council of much of its power, including approval of gubernatorial appointees to most posts in the executive branch.

That petition, pushed by the League of Women Voters, the Jaycees, and other reformers, came in the wake of political corruption scandals involving several councilors, who were later convicted of conspiracy, bribery, and larceny.

But the petition left untouched the council's constitutionally authorized powers, including authority to approve the governor's nominations for judicial and quasi-judicial posts, such as seats on the Industrial Accident Board, the Parole Board, and the Appellate Tax Board.

While the council membership has changed completely over the past two decades and two of the incumbents are in their first term, efforts toward its abolition continue.

Last month freshmen Democratic State Reps. Robert A. Durand of Marlboro and Patricia Walrath of Stow sought to delete funding for the council from the state's fiscal 1986 budget.

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That move, which failed on a 47-to-104 roll call, seems certain to be tried again next year.

But even if successful, this back-door approach would leave the council in place as long as its members, or even a majority of them, are willing to work without pay. The work, such as it is, rarely involves more than a couple of hours a week.

Clearly there is no sure way of getting rid of the council, short of a state constitutional amendment -- one launched through initiative petition.

At the outset at least 61,508 voter signatures (three percent of those who went to the polls in the last gubernatorial election) would be needed on the petition. Once in the legislature, the petition would need the support of only one-quarter, rather than over one-half, of the 200 lawmakers.

A second affirmative vote by one-quarter of the members in the next legislature is necessary to put the proposal on a statewide ballot for voter ratification.

Past attempts to eliminate the council, including one by Gov. Michael S. Dukakis (D) in 1975, have fallen far short of gaining majority support of senators and representatives meeting in constitutional convention.

Legislative leaders, especially Senate President William M. Bulger (D) of Boston, want no part of wiping out the council.

Two veteran members of the council -- Joseph A. Langone III of Boston and Leo J. Turo of Worcester -- once served in the House.

It also might be noted that all councilors are Democrats, as has been the case for more than a decade, and the panel's demise would mean eight fewer members of the party in public office.

From the 47 House votes gathered in Representative Durand's move to cut council funding, prospects would appear bright for getting the needed 50 senators and representatives to support the abolition of the board.

But somebody or some group, such as the League of Women Voters, Common Cause, or perhaps Citizens for Limited Taxation, would have to get the ball rolling.

Without the council, the commonwealth would have some $300,000 a year to use more constructively.

Those who would suggest that the Executive Council is necessary may be overlooking the fact that except for New Hampshire, no other state has such a setup. Most of them seem to be doing just fine without it. -- 30 --

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