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Gov. Baker moves to extinguish 2 administration brushfires

October 8, 2016

BOSTON (AP) — There comes a point in the term of every governor when the pursuit of policy crashes into the messiness of politics and the daunting task of overseeing an administration of tens of thousands of state workers.

For Charlie Baker, that point seemed to come this week, when he found himself trying to put out two brushfires.

One involved the use by a top state Department of Conservation and Recreation official of his vehicle’s lights and sirens to cut through heavy Boston traffic. Matthew Sisk, a deputy commissioner at the DCR, resigned and Baker decided on Tuesday to strip 20 to 30 state employees of their state-owned vehicles.

The second incident centered on Cynthia Lewis, a worker in the state’s embattled environmental agency who said she was transferred to the Fall River office after her fiancé launched a campaign to unseat Republican state Sen. Donald Humason of Westfield.

An investigation by the administration found no conclusive evidence that the transfer was politically motivated, but discovered other evidence of what it said was inappropriate and unprofessional conduct at the Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs.

As a result, the administration said it was moving to fire Jared Valanzola, a personnel officer for the agency. Michael Valanzola, the agency’s chief operating officer, resigned. The men are cousins.

A third person, program manager Tim Sullivan, has been issued a warning after investigators concluded he invaded Lewis’ personal space while speaking with her about the transfer.

Baker said he has no problems with state employees taking part in political life and running for office as long as those activities are carried out on their own time.

“No one in our administration should ever think that it’s appropriate to pressure anybody not to run for something for political purposes,” he said.

It’s unclear whether the problems will chip away at Baker’s popularity among voters. One recent poll placed the selfie-loving Republican among the most popular governors in the country.

Recent history doesn’t necessarily draw a straight line between troubles like those experienced by the Baker administration and a precipitous drop in popularity.

Former Democratic Gov. Deval Patrick faced his share of stumbles during his first term — some self-inflicted — but remained enough of a fan of the electorate to swat back a re-election challenge from Baker, who hoped to deny him a second term in 2012.

Republican Mitt Romney began to see his approval ratings in Massachusetts slide less because of any administrative failing and more because voters began to suspect that the two-time GOP presidential hopeful was maybe more interested in running for the White House than finishing the job they’d hired him to do.

How deftly and forcefully a governor responds to a challenge is also important to how he or she is viewed by voters — whether that means calling for an investigation, firing a top official or shaking up an agency’s bureaucracy.

Baker appeared to give himself a passing grade for his handling of the troubles in the environmental affairs office, although he acknowledged that the complaints first surfaced in June.

“I believe the findings and the results are appropriate, but it did take too long,” Baker told reporters at a news conference Wednesday outside his Statehouse office, although he wouldn’t go as far as suggesting the administration had dragged its feet.

More importantly for Baker, he tried to send a clear warning meant to discourage any other state workers from engaging in similar behavior in the future.

If anyone goes down that road, Baker said, “we will deal with that and we will deal with it aggressively.”

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