Thursday June 9, 2011

PITTSFIELD -- State Rep. Christopher N. Speranzo has been nominated for the clerk magistrate position at Central Berkshire District Court. Gov. Deval L. Patrick formally presented the 38-year-old lawmaker’s nomination to the Governor’s Council on Wednesday.

If the Pittsfield Democrat is confirmed by the Governor’s Council, which appears likely, it could prompt a special election for that House seat in the 3rd Berkshire District for the second time in six years. The last time, Peter Larkin stepped down from the House seat for a private sector position; Speranzo ran for and won the seat in a 2005 special election.

The clerk magistrate position, which is a full-time life appointment, pays $110,000 annually. Speranzo currently makes a base salary of $61,439 as a lawmaker.

Speranzo did not return phone messages seeking comment. He will appear before the Governor’s Council during a June 22 public hearing where questions and testimony about his nomination will take place.

The position at Central Berkshire District Court, formerly held by Leo Evans, has been vacant for nearly two years.

In a statement, Patrick called Speranzo "well-qualified and experienced."

Speranzo stirred controversy when it was widely reported that he was seeking the clerk magistrate job while also campaigning for his fourth term in the House of Representatives last November. During that, Speranzo refused to confirm if he was, in fact, seeking the clerk magistrate post.

Green-Rainbow party candidate Mark C. Miller ran against and lost the race to Speranzo in November, but the established Democrat’s less than 10-point margin of victory proved surprisingly closer than expected. Miller said he’d heard Speranzo’s nomination was imminent and already had planned to announce his candidacy for the 3rd Berkshire District tonight at Baba Louie’s restaurant in Pittsfield.

Pittsfield Ward 2 City Councilor Peter White also confirmed on Wednesday that he plans to seek Speranzo’s seat. "[Speranzo] does his job as far as being a state representative, and I would love to be known as someone who goes to Boston and does their job," White said. "I would rather say thank you for the terms he’s been down there for, and wish him luck in the future rather than say anything negative about anyone."

Pittsfield Ward 2 City Councilor Peter White also confirmed on Wednesday that he plans to seek Speranzo’s seat. "[Speranzo] does his job as far as being a state representative, and I would love to be known as someone who goes to Boston and does their job," White said. "I would rather say thank you for the terms he’s been down there for, and wish him luck in the future rather than say anything negative about anyone."

Pittsfield Mayor James M. Ruberto praised Speranzo as "an eminently qualified candidate" and said that the controversy surrounding the lawmaker’s quest for the district court job while seeking re-election to his House seat was blown out of proportion.

"It is not unusual for someone to seek to improve themselves professionally, and that is most likely the way Speranzo has been evaluating it," Ruberto said.

With regard to the public’s knowledge that Speranzo was seeking the clerk magistrate job last November, Ruberto called "the leaking" of that information unethical. Applicants for judicial jobs are supposed to be kept secret until they are formally nominated, unless the candidate chooses to divulge that information. Asked if that expectation of privacy extended to elected public officials, Ruberto responded with an "Absolutely."

Peter Giftos, executive director of the Berkshire County Republican Association, said he realizes that not everyone who makes a commitment follows through on it.

"I never did approve of this kind of cronyism, but I don’t blame Chris for trying to make a better life for himself," Giftos said. "I didn’t have any doubt it would happen, it was just when. I had no doubt that they would hide it under the rug for a while, while it cooled off, and then let it happen."

A member of the screening panel that reviewed Speranzo’s clerk magistrate application did recuse herself from the proceeding, state officials confirmed on Wednesday. Katherine A. Robertson, a member of the Judicial Nominating Commission that recommends candidates for Massachusetts court jobs, belongs to the same Springfield law firm as Speranzo’s wife.

"I wish Mr. Speranzo the best of luck in his new position," said attorney Jeffrey Scrimo, who brought up the potential conflict last November and had also applied for the clerk magistrate job.

"I raised what I saw as an issue in the process. Obviously, the governor didn’t see it as an issue, so I wish Mr. Speranzo and his family the best of luck," Scrimo said.

Ruberto said he hopes the state allows the city to hold the election for Speranzo’s seat during the regular primary and general elections in September and November, respectively. An official from the Secretary of State’s office would not comment on that prospect until Speranzo had officially resigned.

If Pittsfield were mandated to hold a special election for the 3rd Berkshire seat, it would cost between $40,000 and $42,000, said City Clerk Linda Tyer. It’s unclear how much the state would kick in on the cost.

"It certainly adds a little bit of pressure to the routine of the city clerk’s office, but we are prepared to handle it," Tyer said. "We’re ready to do whatever the state asks us to do."

The 3rd Berkshire District encompasses most of Pittsfield. It consists of Precinct A of Ward 1, all precincts of wards 2, 3, 4, Precinct A of Ward 5, and all precincts of wards 6 and 7.

In the House, Speranzo sits on the Ways and Means and the Judiciary committees.

He is also the only Berkshire County member of the legislative committee in charge of redrawing the state’s congressional and state Senate and House districts. Massachusetts will be losing one of its 10 seats in the U.S. House of Representatives for the 2012 election, and the redrawing of those districts is seen as crucial to Western Massachusetts.

"We need a voice at [that] table," said state Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli, D-Lenox, who offered his office to pick up any slack caused by Speranzo’s departure. "Whether it’s me, [state Reps.] Gail Cariddi or Paul Mark Š we need someone as a voice for the Berkshires and representing the Berkshires. Chris was that voice."

Speranzo is credited with bringing $200 million in state aid to Pittsfield schools during his five-year tenure for advocating for improvements in the criminal justice system and public safety arenas.

Speranzo worked as an assistant attorney general and as the Pittsfield city attorney. He was educated at Boston College, received his master’s from the University of Cambridge, England, and his law degree from Boston College Law School.

Speranzo lives in Pittsfield with his wife, Jenelle Dodds.