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Editorial: Hazard ahead - political hires

The story the Boston Globe published Sunday about the director of the Massachusetts Highway Safety Division made us groan at the breakfast table. Sheila Burgess, whose job for five years was to reduce accidents by promoting good driving habits, has the kind of driving record that would send insurance adjustors running for the hills. She was rightly removed from the post after news of her offenses reached the public.

Among the 34 entries on her driving record are seven accidents and four speeding violations. Twice she was cited for failing to stop for a police officer, once for failing to stay in her lane and once for driving without wearing a seat belt. In 1999 she failed to show up for a hearing after being cited for speeding in New Hampshire. More recently, she had her license on non-renewal status for failing to pay local excise taxes.

The person who earned $87,000 a year to promote responsible driving was, basically, a traffic safety scofflaw.

She never should have been hired for the job — not only because of her iffy driving record, but because she had little on her resume to suggest she was qualified for the job. She had no background in public safety, transportation or even as an administrator for state government.

What she did have was a long resume of working for the campaigns of Democratic candidates, including former state Rep. J. Joseph Moakley, U.S. Rep. James McGovern, U.S. Sen. John Kerry and in Shannon O’Brien’s bid for governor.

Burgess is not the only villain here. Gov. Deval Patrick had no business hiring her. And McGovern had no business recommending her for the job, which he did, he told a Gazette reporter this week, because she is a “good person” and “hard worker.”

This hire smacks of political patronage — not only was it a bad hire, it was a stinky process.

As chief of the division, she managed a staff of six and oversaw public education campaigns on the dangers of speeding, texting while driving, driving while impaired, failing to wear a seat belt and the like. The division distributed some $2 million a year in grants for awareness campaigns.

Since the Globe article appeared, Burgess has been removed from her position, with state officials saying she is “being reassigned” within the department she once ran. We think even a reassignment is questionable. As her abysmal driving record shows, Burgess needs remedial help in these areas and anyone promoting safe driving should have a stellar record at the wheel, not be an example of why such campaigns are necessary.

These hires are why people are cynical about politics. Being a “hard worker” while a paid consultant for a political campaign does not make someone qualified for a state job paid with tax dollars.

McGovern defended his role in her hire, saying, “Just because somebody works for me in a political campaign does not mean she should be disqualified from working in some capacity for other people.”

Well, the converse is true too: Just because someone works for you as a political candidate does not make her qualified for a taxpayer-funded job. Someone paid this much should possess qualifications for the job.

McGovern is missing the point of why her hire, and his role in it, is so insidious. If politicians want their recommendations to have any measure of integrity, they shouldn’t make them unless they know the person is qualified for the job.

We believe anyone in charge of promoting traffic safety ought to show they respect the laws they encourage others to follow.

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