State Marshals: It’s Not What You Know But…….?

A recent Courant story on the hiring of state marshals suggests that a little cronyism and political backscratching may be creeping back into a relatively new system for the hiring of marshals — the individuals who serve the legal papers on behalf of lawyers and courts.

At issue is whether more reform would be appropriate for a state that uses independent contractors (marshals) not officers of the court to notify the innocent and the guilty of legal proceedings impacting their lives.

If you get to be a marshal and have cultivated a relationship with one or more law firms, the gig can be down right lucrative. Fees can range from picking a nice $25 or $30K a year to supplement the family budget to seven-figure businesses that rival or exceed the pay of senior vice presidents at insurance companies. There’s a risk side to all of it. A marshal serving an eviction notice or coming to foreclose on a home doesn’t know who’s behind the door when they come knocking. And marshals need to run a business that may entail taking on hired hands to keep the records straight.

These risks and responsibilities, however, are outweighed by the financial rewards. So wouldn’t you be outraged if you “aced” the test only to find the Lt. Governor’s low-scoring pal got the appointment?

This latest flap over appointments should be a cause for concern. But it can hardly compared with the old. In the bad old days of the county sheriffs, appointments were almost exclusively a patronage domain of the political parties.

The high sheriffs with offices in the county courthouses would be elected every four years. Incumbents had the advantage of shaking down the appointed deputies and deputy wannabes. The high sheriff, who picked the high paying assignments for himself, would also control the judicial court sheriffs who would staff the halls of justice without the union protection afforded all state employees. The only thing high sheriffs had to worry about was securing the endorsement and nomination of their parties for re-election. The sheriffs would continually patronize the local party chairmen and elected officials, and provide no small amount of financial support and election help for the party bosses.

This last vestige of county government was finally vanquished in a 2002 referendum. The state Marshal Commission was set up to replace the county sheriffs, toppling them from their courthouse fiefdoms and ending the pure political patronage upon which serving legal papers had been based.

The new commission under Governor Rowland, working with a small budget and few resources to develop better ways to manage the sheriffs (marshals), instituted the current system of merit exams, qualifications, standards and reporting requirements to regulate the state marshal conduct. The legislation mandating a referendum also allowed for the “grandfathering” of incumbent sheriffs to be appointed marshals with commission approval. Many of those who worked in the old sheriff system are still there, among them a top tier making millions of dollars a year. (I recall this having been a member of the marshal commission in its first two years).

The marshal commission itself is still a politically-driven body with its appointees coming from the Governor, who controls the majority, and the Democratic leaders of the House and Senate. Lt. Governor Fedele should hope that he’s covered his tracks in denying he had nothing to do with the appointment of his friend.

The rampant sheriff patronage is gone in 2009 but political favoritism may be making a comeback to influence who gets the badges and the remuneration that goes with them.

Think Globally, Buy Locally: New Movement Says Buy From Local Merchants

What to do about our hard economic times is a part of the national conversation and plenty of federal action in the first five months of the Obama Administration. The media gas bags on cable news won’t let us forget it. We rightly expect the solutions to come from Washington (the stimulus) and a more rigorous policing of the charlatans of Wall Street. Madoff is in jail and Bush et al have been vanquished.

But it may also be an ideal time for citizens and small businesses to take some of these matters into their own hands through what might be called micro-economic activism. The macro fixes in the global economy are going to take a while to trickle down, if they trickle down at all to places like New Britain, Connecticut.

That’s what makes an upstart movement to encourage ordinary folks to shift a percentage of their spending away from franchises and chains into local and regional businesses one of the few good things to emerge from the baddest recession most of us have ever seen.

Visitors to the “10 percent shift” website are asked to sign the following pledge:

I live in New England and want to preserve our fine heritage, create healthy and sustainable communities, and build a strong New England economy.

I pledge to do an inventory of my annual expenditures and to find ways to shift a minimum of 10% of my annual budget from non locally-owned businesses to locally owned and independent businesses (Local Independents) in the next 12 months.

The “10 percent shifters” are a project of an organization called the New England Local Business Forum (NELBF). The group,with some strong adherents in working-class Somerville outside of Boston and Cambridge, says studies point to significant and positive impacts: “Over the past few years, a growing base of economic research has helped to quantify the Local Multiplier. When dollars are spent at Local Independents, up to three times as much money stays locally, and since Local Independents are much more likely to keep the money circulating in the local economy the economic impact multiplies dramatically. This economic growth resulting from the circulation of dollars within the local economy is the Local Multiplier at work.”

In a place like New Britain that lost its retail downtown to the malling of America decades ago, this “10 percent shift” action may seem like tilting against windmills. Is there an independent drug, shoe or hardware store left? But even here we can make some choices that keep dollars in the local economy for that “multiplier effect”.

I’ll take some of our local restaurants over a franchise any day. I can consciously choose the local optician over Lenscrafters. Maybe there is a regionally-owned gas station where all the dollars for fuel won’t be guzzled by ExxonMobil.

Becoming a shifter may be worth a try here in hard hittin’ New Britain.

Photo: Amato’s Store Hartford Courant