, Salem, MA

June 25, 2011

Our view: Big hurdle for pols is public's lack of trust

Transparency is no substitute for integrity.

Politicians of both parties spend lots of time talking about giving voters online access to government documents, budgets, even checkbooks. Yet those good intentions cannot blunt the public's disgust with those who misuse taxpayer funds.

The latest scandal involves the Billerica-based Merrimack Special Education Collaborative (which operates a high-school program at 248 Boston St. in Topsfield). Spending by its executive director, John Barranco, that allegedly included trips to the Kentucky Derby and renovations to vacation homes in New Hampshire and Florida, has drawn the attention of the Inspector General and state Auditor's offices. Alarmingly, Suzanne Bump, the Democratic auditor elected last November with a mandate to root out corruption, told a group of North Shore business people Wednesday that Merrimack is not the only special education collaborative under scrutiny.

At the same meeting in Danvers there was discussion of state Treasurer Steve Grossman's proposal to put all state agencies' checkbooks online. Wayne Burton, president of North Shore Community College, said while he has nothing to hide, he fears finding himself answering questions like why the college spent $10 on a wrench when it could have saved a couple of bucks going with another vendor.

His concerns are legitimate, but the fact is if the public had more trust in their elected and appointed officials, they would not demand to know how every dollar is spent — and might even be willing to provide them with more money from time to time.

Every time news breaks of someone trying to game the system to line their own pockets, particularly when it involves a high-ranking official like the former speaker of the House, that trust goes out the window. We've heard too many stories about government employees being placed on paid leave when they should have been summarily dismissed, or leaving with lucrative pensions a step ahead of investigators.

Most voters, we suspect, would prefer accountability over the opportunity to spend their free time poring over spreadsheets.