LIKE SARA LEE, nobody doesn't like Dave Balfour, the Bill Weld loyalist who is the brand-new commissioner of the Metropolitan District Commission.
Nevertheless, to anyone who cares about the state's environmental jewels Balfour's appointment is not good news. For what the MDC badly needs is not the installation of yet another faithful retainer as commissioner. What the MDC needs is to be shut down.
This is an agency the term "scandal-ridden" was coined to describe. And the term "inept." And "discredited." The MDC is one of the great failure stories of Massachusetts government. It should have expired years ago. Nearly everything it touches, it contaminates. Its history is replete with example after example of the agency's corruption and incompetence.
How bad is the MDC? When it mounted an art show on the bank of the Charles River, a $ 10,000 painting disappeared. Its workers left shards of glass embedded in the floor of a Mattapan swimming pool, causing 18 children to cut their feet. A slew of its police officers turned out to be bank robbers and racketeers. Zoos it operated were ranked among the very worst in the country. The facilities it runs at Nantasket Beach are atrocious; the bathhouse there has been condemned for 18 years. Its Green Day concert on the Esplanade last fall turned into a frightful riot.
In short, the MDC is a horror show. Scandal and blunder have characterized it for two generations. In an interview the other day, Commissioner Balfour promised he'll change all that -- "I want to make the park system more user-friendly. Bring the beaches back. Give the public bigger bang for the buck." But then, that's what Balfour's predecessor, Ilyas Bhatti, promised. And Bhatti's predecessor, Bill Geary. And Geary's predecessor, Richard Nylen. They all promise they'll fix the MDC, yet the MDC never gets fixed.
Because it is unfixable.
The MDC is neither fish nor flesh. Is it an environmental protection agency, charged with the care of nature preserves and beaches? A recreation agency, designed to run skating rinks, playgrounds and pools? A highway agency, entrusted with maintaining roadways? A marine navigation agency, required to service drawbridges, dams and river crossings? In theory the MDC is all of these; in reality it isn't any. Most government entities have trouble performing one function well. To expect the MDC to fulfill multiple unrelated missions is to guarantee that it will succeed at none.
Thus the MDC's primary reason for existing has become -- to exist. To protect its fiefdom. At that, it excels. It skirmishes with other agencies, assails critics, woos politicians. Its skill at political infighting is legendary. Decades after it should have been abolished, the MDC endures, a testament to the indestructibility of even the moldiest of bureaucracies.
The MDC has lost a few functions over the years. Its Metro police were folded into the State Police force (granted, a case of the bad merging with the ugly). By court order it was stripped of its water and sewer division. It no longer manages -- make that mismanages -- the Stoneham and Franklin Park zoos.
But why have an MDC at all? Everything it does could be done more intelligently by other state agencies or by local communities.
MDC roads and bridges, for instance, should be maintained by the Highway Department, whose contractors do a better job at lower cost than the MDC's in-house crews.
MDC skating rinks are dirty and leaky, open just a few months each year. They ought to be turned over to the Division of Environmental Management, whose rinks are clean, with low fees, popular programs and doors that are usually open, not closed.
The condition of MDC parks and beaches ranges from adequate to godawful, while those run by DEM tend to be beautiful. Pick your way through the hazardous debris littering Weymouth's Abigail Adams Park, an MDC property. Then visit DEM's charming Webb State Park nearby, or its large and lovely Wompatuck State Park in nearby Hingham. Why the contrast? Because DEM is mostly concerned with protecting environmental amenities, while the MDC is mostly concerned with the self-preservation of the MDC.
Parceling out the MDC's operations to other agencies is hardly a radical idea. As far back as 1976, Gov. Michael Dukakis' Management Task Force recommended it. In 1982, the idea was endorsed by the state's Special Commission on Highways. In 1983, by MDC Commissioner John Snedeker. In 1985, by Inspector General Joseph Barresi, and by state Reps. John Flood and Suzanne Bump. In 1989, by the Senate Ways and Means Committee.
And Gov. Weld? In 1991, he spoke of "blowing up" the MDC. For four years in a row, his budgets called for wiping out the dinosaur. But it was never a goal Weld was willing to fight for, his professed love of the outdoors notwithstanding. And so the MDC wins again. Weld's fifth budget, filed last month, makes no mention of abolishing the agency, and the governor's loyal ally now sits in the commissioner's office.
The dinosaur lives on. The parks and beaches -- and taxpayers -- will pay the price.
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe.)