Boston's political machine may be coming upbolted. The latest unthreatening of the well-oiled patronage screws came in a packed hearing room May 29 before the Massachusetts Labor Relations Commission.
The topic: the use of political ratings in determining pay raises for city employees.
The star witness: a reluctant Mayor Kevin H. White (D), subpoenaed by the commission and compelled to testify for three hours about the alleged use of city resources for campaign purposes.
The result: an admission, extracted under oath, that the mayor made frequent use of a "black book" ranking the political effectiveness of hundreds of city employees who helped him with his fourth term in 1979.
The significance: a further deterioration in the credibility of a man once called "the mayor of America," whose city is already wracked by its most ominous financial torments since the Great Depression.
While this may not be Mayor White's Watergate, it seems sure to amount to more than a "mere milk and cookies" affair (as one mayoral aide described it).
"It is one skirmish in a very long battle," says Joe Buckley, the executive director of the union that brought the mayor into the witness box.
His union, Local 285 of the Service Employees International Union, represents 3,500 City of Boston employees. Attorneys for the union allege that between September 1978 and April 1979, employees who served the mayor's political effort as ward coordinators and precinct captains had wage increases averaging about $ 70 a week -- while the nonpolitical union employees drew increases averaging only $5.75 a week.
During the same period, the union attorneys say wage increases for 260 precinct captains cost the city $898,722, while increases for 260 employees under union contract cost $78,000.
The case grew out of a grievances, filed several years ago, alleging irregularities in the hiring of two employees in the city Parks and Recreation Department. "These people came out of nowhere" into slots normally filled through promotional channels, a union spokesman told the Monitor.
When other employees objected, union lawyers sought documents from the city which, they said, were used to award patronage positions. The city refused -- until the Labor Relations Commission issued a complaint and ordered city officials, including the mayor, to appear before it.
Existence of the "black book" was common knowledge among observers close to the last mayoral campaign. "It's something that everybody knows but that nobody has any information about," said the union spokesman.
Now, however, the mayor has admitted that:
* An inch-thick book with black covers, assembled at his request, came into his possession shortly after the election in November 1979.
* It contained the names of "hundreds" of campaign workerS, ranking precinct captains from 1 to 252 and ward coordinators from 1 to 22. It also rated some of the other 2,000 volunteers who helped in the campaign.
* It based its ratings on such things as how many lawn signs were placed in a worker's district, how many phone calls were made, how many dessert parties were held, and -- most significantly -- how the district finally voted.
* Its information was assembled in a casual way, by only a few people, and was not updated. Nor was it available for scrutiny by those concerned about its accuracy. "I was the only one who had the book," admitted White.
The mayor, unfailingly polite as he munched mints in a witness box decked with microphones, defended his use of the book. "It was an informational tool to either reinforce or correct a view" of an individual, he said. "You have to have some criteria other than rumors," he addeD. But the book, he said, "turned out to be not what I wanted" and "was eventually of no use to me."
Nevertheless, the mayor, who at one point asserted "I have a very good memory ," repeatedly responded that he could not remember much about the collection of information concerning the political leanings of 70,000 voters, the effectiveness of his own campaign volunteers, the computerized collation of such information, and the whereabouts of computer printouts of this data.
He also said he did not know the whereabouts of the black book.
At issue is not only the use of the book but also how its information was gathered. Shortly before the election, the mayor spearheaded the so-called "classification campaign" supporting a statewide measure permitting cities and towns to tax different kinds of property in different ways. The city, which can legally spend money to lobby the legislature, spent $1 million on the campaign. Some of that taxpayers' money, say White's critics, may have been spent to assemble records later used in the mayor's own reelection campaign.
This flap comes at a time of rising disaffection with city administration and on top of several recent defeats for the mayor. In early May, a state bill that would have helped solve city fiscal problems went down to stunning defeat.
And the day before the hearing, the Boston City Council obtained a court injunction prohibiting the mayor from spending more money than had been authorized for 22 departments. In the past, city administrations have been free to move money between departments across budgetary barriers and have frequently "rolled over" some spending into future years.