STATE Treasurer Robert Q. Crane is hardly the most influential force in Massachusetts politics. Nor is he as popular with voters as the grip he has on his $75,000-a-year low-visibility office might suggest. But the veteran Wellesley Democrat, whose 1986 reelection margin was the thinnest of his two decades in state office, is a man of considerable power, perhaps second only to Gov. Michael Dukakis in the commonwealth's executive branch. He controls the investment of millions of public dollars and lots of jobs.
Despite his many detractors, Mr. Crane has weathered more criticism in the past couple of decades than anyone on Beacon Hill. And so it may well be with the latest salvo involving charges of cronyism in hiring. A recent Boston Herald investigative report does, however, raise serious questions about whether there is a better, or fairer, way to fill public-service jobs beyond the reach of civil service.
Crane controls more than 900 posts in the treasurer's office and at the State Lottery Commission. Therefore, he is in a position to take care of a lot of friends, or even friends of friends of friends. Even if, as he maintains, all those he has put to work, directly or indirectly, are qualified, that still may not be enough.
There is little doubt that, in some instances at least, other citizens - who would love to have some of these hardly poverty-level state jobs and might be more qualified - stand little chance of being hired. They don't know about the openings. They have no ``in.''
Certainly it was no coincidence that the small private employment agency, with ties to a member of his staff, was used for several years by the treasurer's office to fill certain temporary jobs, including some that went to people with State House connections.
A better, less costly arrangement might have been to hire people for temporary and full-time positions in Crane's office (and at the lottery commission) through the state Division of Employment Security. In that way every commonwealth resident would have equal access to such openings. And nobody would have to pay an extra penny for the service.
Obviously, friends and relatives of public officials or business associates of those in government have a right to compete for jobs in or out of public service. It's only when they have a special advantage, or even the appearance of it, that public confidence can be shaken.
A true merit system for filling government-agency jobs would be ideal, especially where there is no civil service coverage or where the jobs involved are truly temporary. All too often many of the positions that go to supposed fill-ins prove to be permanent, or last as long as the appointing official's term.
Crane, whose $100,000-a-year outside work as a consultant for a food-brokerage company was much criticized by his 1986 Republican challenger, L.Joyce Hampers, clearly is not about to change the hiring practices in his department voluntarily. Nor are state lawmakers, who may have benefited from his having jobs available for friends, likely to go along with anything that might diminish this potential source of patronage.
As long as Crane has places to put people to work, his popularity among Democratic Party activists seems sure to continue.
What reforms there might be in the way people get their jobs, like so many other long-overdue changes in state government, might have to begin with the people, through an initiative petition.
A speedier approach could be through the ballot box and election of a Crane successor willing to buck the political tides of cronyism and offer a treasury department and lottery agency free of patronage.
In the long run, however, there is no substitute for a strong, well-managed, influence-free state agency to fill impartially most public-service posts. That would ensure that every state resident has a chance to compete for available openings on the public payroll.