Why is Bay State elder affairs chief being ousted?

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ONE of the ablest and most dedicated members of the Massachusetts cabinet is being shown the door, and the big loser may be thousands of elderly. Certainly the coming involuntary departure of Richard H. Rowland will do nothing to improve the plight of senior citizens here. And it is a move that could lead to the politicizing of the agency.

As state secretary for elder affairs for the past nearly 4 years, Dr. Rowland has scrupulously avoided even casual involvement with candidates for public office. This, of course, won him no points with certain gubernatorial aides or advisers, who were unhappy with Rowland's unwillingness to be a part of last year's campaign for governor.

Whether Rowland's stance was of any concern to Gov. Michael Dukakis is unknown. What is clear is the elder affairs secretary's unswerving loyalty to the governor. And that seems unlikely to change, although Rowland has to be disappointed about his forced resignation from a post to which he has committed his full energies since January 1983.

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Whatever his shortcomings, there is no question of Rowland's honesty and integrity or his commitment to the best interests of the elderly. Nobody in Massachusetts is and has been more of an advocate of programs for the aging. His dedication dates back to long before he joined the Dukakis administration, after having been a longtime ally of the late Frank Manning in the Massachusetts Association of Older Americans.

The soft-spoken Newton resident had proved to be an effective lobbyist for programs to help the elderly live with dignity in their homes, a role he never abandoned as a member of the Dukakis team.

But like most administrators who do more than shuffle papers, Rowland was bound to alienate some associates. Certain elder-service providers, including a few with very sensitive political toes, decided he had to, and they went rushing to Dukakis with their complaints, questioning Rowland's management skills.

The situation had reached a point where any Dukakis efforts to placate the Rowland critics may have been impossible, since the elder affairs secretary would hardly agree to be little more than a puppet administrator.

From the governor's standpoint it was simply easier to tell Rowland to pack his bags and move on, even though he must have realized such a decision would rankle some boosters of the elder affairs secretary.

Had he been less preoccupied with his own presidential ambitions, the governor might have resisted the mounting pressure to get rid of Rowland.

But why did Dukakis delay the effective date of the action until Aug. 1, instead of making it July 1, or even June 1?

The answer just might be that the governor does not have anyone of Rowland's caliber or experience to take on the assignment. It is no place for just another ``friend of a friend.'' For Rowland, a social work professional with degrees from the University of Wisconsin, Boston University, and Brandeis University, the job has been a labor of love. He lasted longer than any of his five predecessors during the agency's 16 years.

The Rowland regime was marked by considerable growth in programs and a broad range of accomplishments toward a better quality of life for many a senior citizen.

Through contacts with nonprofit vendors and others, the Elder Affairs Department provides personal services, home care, adult day care, emergency shelters, and nursing services.

Dukakis, obviously pleased with what Massachusetts has been doing for its senior citizens, praised Rowland for what he has done, but at the same time asserted, ``Now it's time to make a change.''

The gubernatorial move was hardly welcomed by the unpaid citizens' advisory committee to the Executive Office of Elder Affairs, whose directors met with Dukakis in February to offer their strong backing of Rowland. Members of that panel appear generally less than impressed by arguments from the elder affairs secretary's small but vocal band of detractors.

While a more loosely run department might suit Rowland critics, will it ensure getting the most from every tax dollar spent on the elderly? More important, will the $138 million spent annually on various service contracts for senior citizens continue to do what it is supposed to, or become partly siphoned off in bureaucracy or patronage?

The governor will be hard pressed to find a new elder affairs secretary who will command the respect and confidence that Dr. Rowland had among seniors across Massachusetts.

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