Democratic presidential candidate Michael Dukakis is trying to defuse criticism that he mismanaged key social issues as governor of Massachusetts. Controversy over a prison siting, foster-care guardianship by homosexual couples, and staffing at a mental hospital - topics which had until recently been limited to state debate - have been surfacing in the national campaign arena.
Last week, the governor released nearly 500 pages of internal memos and planning documents relating to these issues, but only after a claim of executive privilege was denied by Massachusetts' highest court.
The papers had been sought by newspapers and plaintiffs in lawsuits, including the small rural town of New Braintree, which is resisting the location of a 500-bed medium-security prison on the site of a former religious school there.
Early reports indicated that the documents, long characterized by state officials as benign, appeared to contain no startling revelations.
The prison-siting decision attracted considerable national attention earlier this summer when it was reported that the Federal Bureau of Investigation was looking into the matter.
The FBI dropped its inquiry early this month, reportedly having found no evidence of wrongdoing. The state's Inspector General has also found no reason to continue its probe of the siting process.
Dorothea Thomas-Vitrac, a New Braintree selectman leading the town's fight against the prison, argued that a ``smoking gun'' revealing political favoritism or criminal wrongdoing lay in the documents Dukakis was withholding. Contacted yesterday, Mrs. Thomas-Vitrac said she was still reviewing the papers and would not comment until Tuesday.
Mrs. Thomas-Vitrac and other opponents have charged that the current owners of the property, one of whom is a sometime Dukakis campaign contributor who grew up near the Dukakis family, bought the land after they were tipped off to the state's interest.
State officials from the governor on down have denied any wrongdoing. But Dukakis continued to withhold the documents, saying that to release them would produce a ``chilling effect'' on decision-making.
``I would just as soon release them,'' stated one high state official last month, but lawyers for the state counseled otherwise, citing the precedent that would be set. Hundreds of other documents had already been released.
``Free exchange promotes better and more thoughtful decisions,'' said Dukakis spokesman James Dorsey. While that principle is an important one, he continued, he was ``pleased'' that the public would now see how these particular decisions were ``careful, thoughtful, and motivated by one thing only - seeing that the public interest is served.''
A unanimous state superior court decision Aug. 15 found no statutory basis for the governor's claim of executive privilege. The ruling came in a case brought by two homosexual men challenging the state's policy against placing foster children with homosexual couples.
State papers had also been sought in regard to staff shortages at a state mental hospital where three unsupervised patients committed suicide last year.