Breaking up MDC may be key to delivering better services in Bay State

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What might have been a noble step toward regional government in eastern Massachusetts has long since veered off course and may be doomed. After 64 years of providing a variety of services for dozens of communities from Boston to Framingham and from Hull to Peabody, the Metropolitan District Commission (MDC) appears to have grown too big and cumbersome for effective management.

The agency may yet survive, thanks to certain friends with political influence who have been the benefactors of its considerable patronage. But pressures for major restructing are mounting.

To their credit, Gov. Michael S. Dukakis and his aides have accepted what amounts to a challenge hurled at them earlier this fall by State Inspector General Joseph R. Barresi. At that time he released a hard-hitting report concerning the MDC's parks division.

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The 191-page document took the agency to task for waste of public funds, inefficient operations, and lack of professional competence in detecting flaws in the design of a bridge. It spurred formation of a special task force, which has developed far-reaching recommendations for improving services.

Perhaps the most significant changes suggested by the Dukakis administration's in-house MDC study panel would split the commission's water and sewer divisions into a separate new state authority. This would be responsible solely for providing these services to cities and towns within the district and others wishing to tie into the two systems.

The parks division would remain either within the MDC, if it survived, or would become a separate operation devoted exclusively to running recreation programs.

Responsibility for MDC bridges and roadways, such as Storrow Drive and the Jamaicaway, would be shifted to the state department of public works. That move makes particular sense: It would eliminate some bureaucracy, leaving a single corps of professional engineers and planners responsible for building highways across the commonwealth.

This set of proposals has the backing of the governor, whose considerable push will be essential.

It would be foolhardy to move too fast with the type of wholesale overhaul or replacement needed to improve the MDC's functions. But having concluded that a change is needed, or at least very desirable, it would serve little purpose to postpone readying the appropriate legislation as quickly as possible.

Ideally, parts, if not all, of any realignment should be ready for state lawmaker consideration by early next year. This would allow the legislature to act on various reform proposals in time for the fiscal 1985 state budget, which begins next July 1.

A variety of factors contributed to the bad mark given the MDC for management of its parks division. But possibly the most glaring has been the all-too-frequent changes in the agency's leadership. Over the past eight years almost as many commissioners have headed the sprawling operation. Some lasted only a few months and none more than 21/2 years.

It takes at least two years for anyone to learn the job, explains Boston Republican John W. Sears, who was MDC commissioner for four years during the early 1970s. He holds that splitting up the MDC is not the answer to improving its operations. When under strong leadership, he notes, the MDC has done a good job.

The big challenge, as he views it, is attracting and holding top professionals, such as engineers. Mr. Sears, the 1982 Republican gubernatorial nominee, laments that not only is MDC commissioner William Geary new, but so are all four of the associate commissioners. But he makes it clear that he is not criticizing the five individuals, nor does he question their commitment to doing a good job.

In fairness to Mr. Geary and his associates, no effort has been made to gloss over the inspector general's report. And he seems determined to give the commonwealth the best-run agency possible. None of the incompetence and waste raised by the Barresi critique began during his regime and there is no suggestion that things have worsened in recent months.

Clearly he and his aides have devoted substantial attention to the parks program. But it could be a near impossible task for him, or anyone else, to successfully oversee the day-to-day operations of the MDC's parks and its other main divisions while simultaneously trying to solve long-range problems.

The job might be a lot easier if responsibilities were less far-reaching or the agency less riddled with patronage-remnants from previous state administrations. It is questionable to what extent moving people around within the agency will upgrade its services.

Those who would sell the current recommendations for restructuring the MDC on the basis that it might save money may be indulging in a lot of wishful thinking. There is little to suggest less money would be needed to give metropolitan district communities better sewage treatment, water systems, and recreation facilities. But the changes proposed would almost certainly help provide more for the money through greater efficiency.

Particularly important in this respect should be an improved personnel system within the MDC and any of its successor agencies. Perhaps more than any other agency in state government, the MDC has been used to take care of politicians' friends and other hangers-on, rather than hiring the best talent available.

If the commonwealth's taxpayers and the communities served by one or all of the MDC districts are to get their money's worth, a lot closer public scrutiny of the agency is needed.

An advisory board, comprising representatives from cities and towns within the districts, would go a long way in that direction. As committed as the Dukakis administration may be to creation of such a panel, which the task force recommends, this cannot be accomplished administratively.

For the advisory board to be anything more than a puppet, which could be easily destroyed were it to ruffle too many Beacon Hill feathers, it must become a permanent part of the MDC structure.

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