By Andy Metzger
STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE
BOSTON -- One interim probation officer will lose his job after failing a June exam required by a 2011 law, while the other roughly 200 interim hires passed the exam and will remain on the job, and 1,100 job-seekers will move forward in a new hiring process aimed at filling 60 empty positions in the department, Trial Court Administrator Harry Spence told the News Service.
The probation department, which only a few years ago allegedly placed such a large emphasis on patronage to warrant federal criminal charges, was required by a 2011 law to subject all applicants for court officer and probation officer positions to a written exam, but it was only this June and July that those exams were finally administered. In the intervening years the Trial Court filled those positions on an interim basis with the understanding employees would need to pass an exam to keep their job, Spence said.
House Speaker Robert DeLeo, accused by prosecutors of conspiring to bribe lawmakers with probation jobs but not charged in the probation trial that is still playing out, recently claimed Spence and his predecessor, former Chief Justice of Administration and Management Robert Mulligan, "ignored" the 2011 law requiring written exams.
Spence said he did not "personally tell" DeLeo that the trial court was hiring court officers and probation officers on an interim basis before putting the test in place "and to that extent I've apologized to him.
Spence told the News Service the positions had to be filled on an interim basis to prevent the closure of courts and all the hires were told their continued employment was conditional on passage of an exam, which was administered in mid-June at the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center.
A jury that's been huddling for a week now broke Tuesday without reaching a verdict in the criminal trial of former Probation Commissioner John O'Brien and two of his former deputies.
About 1,295 people took the probation officer exam, including the roughly 200 interim appointments, and 3 percent failed the test, said Spence.
"One existing staff member who was hired in the last two years failed it, and he is being terminated," said Spence who declined to provide any other details about the man and said he does not expect any litigation resulting from the termination.
On Tuesday, Spence told the News Service he is waiting for the results of the court officer exam that took place last Saturday.
Aside from allegations of criminal fraud, testimony in the probation trial revealed varying interpretations of how the hiring process was supposed to work. Local-level interviews produced eight or 10 or more finalists, who were ranked with or without scores on handwritten or printed-out sheets of paper.
In the wake of investigations and the reform law, the Trial Court developed a new system to govern personnel decisions.
"The entire process has been profoundly revised," Spence said.
Spence said all the interim hires were made after "much broader recruitment" and by officials trained in behavioral-based interviews, which tests applicants on how they have handled various situations in their past.
The roughly 1,100 new applicants for 60 open probation officer jobs, will next be asked to apply for specific positions at different courts, face a secondary computerized screening process to winnow the field based on metrics such as academic achievement and work experience, and will then be interviewed by a trained panel that includes a judge, the chief probation officer and likely the assistant chief probation officer, Spence said. Those who move on will be interviewed by senior probation staff, and only at that point in the hiring process will letters of recommendation be allowed to be taken into consideration.
In years past, trial evidence has shown, applications would sometimes be routed through legislative offices, and Spence said there was limited outreach about job openings. Now people seeking work as a probation officer can only apply online and a computer program automatically sifts out applicants who do not have certain prerequisites, such as a bachelor's degree, before they even take the exam.
The Trial Court initially received no bids before renewing the procurement process and selecting Chicago-based vendor I/O Solutions to craft a multiple-choice test that Spence said measures cognitive ability and personality. For the first go-around on the exam last month, the Trial Court allowed anyone who scored at least 60 percent to pass, and Spence said the lowest passing scores will "ratchet up modestly" for future exams.
Spence said creating a fair exam that will not benefit a particular demographic group is a difficult achievement, and in early 2014 when Trial Court officials were assured that I/O Solutions would achieve its goal the interim hires were halted. The firm Manpower Inc. trained probation staff and judges in behavioral interviewing.
The Trial Court has hired about 350 to 400 interim court officers and probation officers since the new law, said Spence, who said he has received between 10 and 30 letters of recommendation and no phone calls pushing a particular candidate. He said, "In two and a half years I have not gotten a single phone call."
The authority to appoint probation officers has remained with the commissioner of probation, Edward Dalton, and Spence - the first in the new position of court administrator - has taken over the role of the former chief justice of administration and management, approving the hires and promotions.
"My job is to make sure that the process has been complied with in every instance," Spence said.