“[Their] words and actions send a clear message: don’t bother coming and don’t bother giving testimony.”
There was high drama on display again at a Massachusetts Governor’s Council meeting at the State House last week. During two nomination hearings on June 15, councilors argued with each other, used their podiums to air their pet peeves, and insulted and cut off witnesses.
Such antics have been well-documented. As one former member of the elected body said in an expose in 2009, “Every time there’s anything significant written about the Council, we come out looking like a bunch of buffoons.” And as Lawyer’s Weekly wrote this past April, “Too few voters know the Governor’s Council exists, much less how it behaves.”
The Council, established in Colonial times and spelled out in the Massachusetts constitution, votes on the governor’s nominations for judicial, parole, and other positions, as well as on commutations and pardons. They’re elected by voters from across the Commonwealth—one for each of its massive designated districts—and paid $36,000 a year with two-year terms. Over the years, some lawmakers including Gov. Michael Dukakis tried to unsuccessfully abolish this body, insisting it’s archaic; others have called it “an anachronism that too often veers into the bizarre.”
Last Wednesday’s rowdy hearings were for James Kelcourse, a current GOP state rep from Amesbury, and Dr. Maryanne Galvin, a forensic psychologist, both nominated by Gov. Charlie Baker to fill seats on the seven-member Parole Board. The board decides who is or is not fit to earn parole—an opportunity for prisoners to complete their sentences in the community, under supervision.
If Kelcourse is confirmed, he will replace current-board member Sheila Dupre and his term would run until June 2026. If Galvin is confirmed, she will fill the vacancy left by former prosecutor and now Asst. Clerk Magistrate Karen A. McCarthy, and her term will run until September 2025.
The cast of characters who will vote on these nominations on June 22 includes outspoken Gloucester councilor Eileen Duff who chaired the Kelcourse hearing. That’s a tradition, since he is from her district.
Duff several times interrupted Lisa Berland, a member of the citizen’s group Parole Watch (in which this reporter participates). Berland detailed the expertise needed on the board from her observations while attending more than 35 parole hearings for those with life sentences (the only ones open to the public). Duff made dismissive statements, and quipped “You’re not telling us anything we don’t know. … We know more than you … [you’re] kind of taking up time.”
Duff then argued publicly with Watertown councilor Marilyn Petitto-Devaney during Berland’s testimony. “I wish you would get your facts straight,” Duff barked in frustration. This past March, when Devaney angered fellow counselors over a livestreaming controversy, Duff told a reporter, “I seriously think Councilor Devaney is mentally ill.”
Devaney has consistently tussled with other councilors, recently after she went to the Boston Herald over Council disagreements. But she is not alone. At a 2017 hearing, Milton councilor and attorney Robert Jubinville publicly called Somerset councilor and former police officer Joseph Ferreira “a bootlicker” and “a rubber stamp.” Lynnfield councilor and attorney Terrence Kennedy angered some colleagues when it was discovered that a super PAC with ties to Baker had contributed $34,770 to his reelection campaign in 2020.
Kennedy also interrupted Berland’s testimony while Devaney was questioning her. Devaney claimed that she was the only councilor who interviewed all candidates who came before them; Kennedy called out, “She is lying.”
Questions that seemed more appropriately directed at the candidate were often aimed at witnesses. Nicole Riley, a criminal-defense attorney from Newburyport testifying for Kelcourse, was asked by Boston councilor and personal injury attorney Christopher Iannella: “What is the most important quality to be a member of the Parole Board?” She answered, “Fairness.” Iannella then prodded, “I don’t know if that’s the most important. … Would you think that someone with a social science background would be at the top of the list?”
Elizabeth Matos, the executive director of Prisoners’ Legal Services (PLS) who has extensive experience working with prisoners, testified that 80% of those incarcerated have substance use and mental health issues. She said that Kelcourse did not have the addiction and mental health expertise that was sorely needed on the Parole Board and therefore should not be appointed. In response, Councilor Duff told Matos, “You don’t even know what the facts are yet.”
By phone, Matos told me, “One major thing that is really disheartening and counterproductive is that the councilors purport to know a lot about parole but it is evident from statements that they make and their lack of depth of questioning that many don’t have grounding in the process—do they really understand the purpose of parole?”
The PLS executive director cited a moment at the hearing when Councilor Ferreira brought up the Parole Board’s 2020 annual report, and asked Matos “if she agreed with it.” He claimed that Massachusetts has a very low incarceration rate. But Matos said that this information was not put into context. For example, she said, “a low incarceration rate for whom?” Adding, “The point should not be to compare us to other poorly functioning systems but to ask is our parole system functioning well?” (Later, during Galvin’s hearing, Councilor Paul DePalo from Worcester noted, “We have the highest Latino incarceration rate in the country.”)
Matos, as well as Attorney Patricia Garin, co-director of the Northeastern University Law School’s Prisoners’ Rights Clinic, spoke about the structural racism in parole and the need for more diverse candidates on the board. Garin, who served this past year on the Commission on Structural Racism in Parole, referenced their recommendations and said with 60% people of color in our prison population, we need at least four people of color on a seven-member board for the board to be representative of the people they judge. We currently have two.
As part of her obvious support of Kelcourse’s nomination, Eileen Duff commented at one point, “I never thought in my wildest dreams I would say this, but we don’t have a white guy on the parole board.”
By the time of Kelcourse’s opening statement, it was almost two hours into the hearing. The Council professes an it-has-always-been-this-way dictum, and insists nominees speak after other testimony. Kelcourse did not state who told him about the job or when he applied for it, but said that as a state rep for eight years, “I view the Parole Board as a new and wonderful opportunity to serve our communities in a different way.” He stated he had watched three lifer hearings on video but had never attended a hearing in person.
Kelcourse was criticized by East Longmeadow Councilor Mary Hurley, a former Springfield judge who has often scolded other Council members publicly. When she asked Kelcourse if he had any social work experience, which she thought would be useful for the Board, he went into a long explanation of his background, which in fact included no social work experience.
She reprimanded, “I asked you what time it was. You told me how to build a watch.”
Devaney and Duff then argued about time, with the former insisting she’d been told she only had eight minutes to question the nominee and Duff saying it was actually 15 minutes.
Rules and rants
As soon as Laura Berland Wyman got up to testify in support of Dr. Maryanne Galvin, the chair of this part of the meeting, Councilor Ferreira, issued a rule that she was to keep her testimony to two minutes.
Devaney interrupted, “Since when do we have this rule?”
Ferreira responded, “Since I’m the chair.”
In a phone interview, Lisa Berland expressed her frustration at these kinds of actions. “Are you trying to send a message that the public is not welcome at your hearings? On the one hand, you say you appreciate our testimony. But your words and actions send a clear message: don’t bother coming and don’t bother giving testimony.”
Dr. Galvin, who has more than 30 years of experience in trial courts, jails, and psychiatric facilities, answered questions from councilors succinctly, for example, stating, “I always saw parole as a continuum of care.”
Galvin also faced questions from councilors that did not always comment on her experience. Councilor DePalo spent almost five minutes railing against the nomination process. It seemed he was not speaking of Galvin when he said, “I don’t know how we even think about putting someone on the Parole Board who doesn’t know the underlying issues at play.” He went on to complain about “sky-high recidivism rates … two commutations out of hundreds of petitions in the last six years … We have one Spanish speaker on the board and the highest Latino incarceration rate in the country, and we continue to put white people on the board.”
Milton councilor and attorney Robert Jubinville’s first question to Galvin was, “Do you meditate?” He followed that up with a long series of questions about her beliefs regarding parole. At the end of his questioning he encouraged Galvin to stay “independent” on the board. Jubinville added, “You can’t get fired by the way you vote.”
Unlike Parole Board members, councilors can actually get voted out of office. The governor’s councilors’ terms are all up this November, and at this point, all but Hurley are running again.
Since Baker became governor, several of his nominees withdrew their candidacy, but DIG is aware of only one nomination out of more than 350–judicial, parole, and others–that was not approved by the Council.
Dan Atkinson contributed to this article.
Jean Trounstine is a writer, activist, and professor whose latest book is Boy With a Knife: A Story of Murder, Remorse, and a Prisoner’s Fight for Justice. She is on the steering committee of the Coalition for Effective Public Safety.