, Newburyport, MA


March 19, 2012

Not-so-fond remembrance of county government

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.

Not so.

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.

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