Malloy doing his best, except for the details

Gov. Dannel P. Malloy always said he supported collective bargaining for public employees, and last week he got a big, fat dose of it. A state labor arbiter began ruling that many if not most of the 103 state employees fired for improperly claiming emergency food stamp money should get their jobs back.

It's not that the Malloy administration judged the cases wrong. The arbiter just decided that the improper claims constituted "mistakes" rather than fraud and that the employees should suffer only brief suspensions and repay the money rather than lose their jobs - that the discipline first imposed was too severe.

These are in fact common outcomes in state employee discipline cases taken to arbitration. Firings are seldom upheld. Discipline is reduced. Management is usually mocked. The judgment of the chief executive chosen by all the people is countermanded by an unelected functionary installed precisely to impair not just public administration but also majority rule.

It's not as if anyone was railroaded here. It's simply that, under state labor law, a governor's punitive judgments can't be allowed to stand even when based on proper findings of fact.

If arbiters are to have such power and in effect run the government in place of elected officials, they too should be elected.

The Malloy administration may appeal the reinstatements, risking a second embarrassment if the appeals fail. And given his long endorsement of a system that now only ties his hands when he pursues the public interest, the governor may deserve to be embarrassed. But not as much as the public should be angry.

Malloy attempted public administration in another big way last week. He got the General Assembly to pass legislation giving the state education commissioner veto power over the Bridgeport Board of Education's selection of the city's next school superintendent. The veto was the condition of a $3.5 million state loan to the board to cover its budget deficit.

In some quarters this was denounced as a power grab. But while it may be unprecedented, it has good cause. Bridgeport's school system long has been a disaster, and the school board and the city's mayor themselves asked state government to take over the system. State government pays for most of it anyway. And the governor already has gotten legislation authorizing the state Education Department to take over as many as 25 of the state's worst-performing local schools.

That is, Malloy, perhaps spurred by his own childhood experience overcoming a learning disability, is Connecticut's first governor not to shrug at the crushing disadvantages of fatherless city children, children who are often effectively motherless as well - the first governor determined to take personal responsibility for these kids.

It's a loser of an issue politically. There will have to be much experimentation, and making up in school for so much family disintegration will take years if it can be done at all. There won't be quick successes. And having understandably enough given up on Connecticut's cities and their government-induced pathologies, the rest of the state probably won't care much even if success is achieved.

All of which makes this "power grab" heroic.

Malloy last week got the General Assembly to act on still another issue of public administration - to repeal the law requiring the state to maintain a roster of at least 1,248 state troopers. The troopers union last year used the law to resist layoffs after rejecting contract concessions sought by the governor from all the state employee unions. To get the savings he wanted from the troopers, the governor laid off 56 of them, rehiring them as retirements created openings.

There's nothing magic about the statute's staff number; it's arbitrary and serves only to insulate the troopers against management demands that can be made in every other state agency. The union will say repeal is political payback by the governor.

It is indeed, and well-earned.

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