The media — from national newspapers to local blogs — are rife with headlines, policy discussions, rants and vitriol about government.
It's fashionable to say about government that "it's too large," "too inefficient," "ineffective," "corrupt," "doesn't perform," which sometimes leads to people saying, "Let's just eliminate it."
We all know that there is some fact and some fiction in all of the comments.
We must confess, however, that each of these quotes was dead right in the 1980s and '90s about Essex County government. This is a too-little-known story about how an entire level of government was actually abolished — quietly, without fanfare and quite effectively.
In 1986, one of us (DiSalvo) was elected chairman of a panel that reviewed the county charter. The other (Stanley) was working on Wall Street.
Ten years later, the roles were somewhat reversed. The latter (Stanley) was now a state representative, while the former (DiSalvo) was heading Semaphore, an investment consulting business. We did not meet until 1994 — an odd couple of business professionals, one just entering government and one who had left it.
DiSalvo's panel proved to be a thorn in the side of Essex County government. No one had counted on an independent review of county operations, termed "a dinosaur whose extinction has been too long delayed."
The reform commission recommended the closing down of the county as then structured. Court fights ensued and political blood was shed as the cronies fought to keep their personal sinecures. The fight lingered for a decade. Even as a sitting sheriff went to jail during this fight, the old pols thought they'd won the day just by delay.
In 1996 then-Gov. William Weld filed legislation to reform the county system statewide. State Sen. Stanley Rosenberg, D-Amherst, included the systematic reform of county government in his first budget as chairman of the Senate Ways and Means Committee.
We were assigned responsibility for making reform work. We made for a surprisingly effective team. The bill that gutted county government became part of the state budget and went to the governor's desk for signature. Gov. Weld signed it into law.
As the bill became law, the position of Essex County commissioner was eliminated and their offices stripped of authority. The elected sheriff position was professionalized under state government supervision. The registries of deeds were put under control of the secretary of state. Courts and buildings were taken over by the state, and other county services were eliminated or transferred to more efficient departments.
All was not perfect. Some cities and towns complained about the change from business as usual, and the culture of cronyism and backslapping lingered. A perfect example was the unethically self-serving behavior of former county treasurer Timothy Bassett, who got himself appointed executive director of the Essex County Retirement Board.
The team believed that the estimated $100 million in annual savings reform would yield for the commonwealth's taxpayers was worth the risk of unwarranted acts that could be corrected later.
Thankfully, such ill acts have been isolated. The one vital difference is that if county government had remained, none of us would have ever known about the closeted inside deals.
Just over $1 billion was saved in the first 10 years of county abolition statewide.
The real story is how far we actually went. Rarely in state history has any level of government been restricted, never mind eliminated. And this was not just for Essex County; all of the largest county governments disappeared across the commonwealth and each of the others were structurally reformed.
It is a legacy of which we are proud. Few know about our success. Fewer still herald it. One TV reporter told us at the time that the subject of county government reform was "boring." Right she was — boring, but momentous.
Next time you read some of the outrage about how our government does not work and how it ought to be changed, remember that it can be done. Here in Essex County it took 10 years, but it got done.
Essex County government existed for more than 350 years. It once had a place. Today its place, and our effort, is in the history books — gone and forgotten.
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Rep. Harriett Stanley, a West Newbury resident, is retiring from the Legislature after 18 years of service. Mark DiSalvo remains CEO of Semaphore and lives in North Andover.