Turmoil & mismanagement in Oregon state government

Sen Doug Whitsett

by Sen. Doug Whitsett

It is becoming increasingly clear that management problems and funding issues are the “new normal” among Oregon state government agencies. Arguably, as many as a dozen agencies have been suffering from management and funding problems for most of Governor Kate Brown’s brief tenure. Although some of the troubles are certainly the result of legacy issues she inherited from the Kitzhaber administration, Governor Brown is now well into her second year as Oregon’s chief executive.

Two weeks ago, Governor Brown abruptly fired Jack Roberts, the Oregon Lottery Director. Her office explained the reason for firing Roberts was “management problems.” Roberts is a Republican who was appointed to the position by former Governor John Kitzhaber in late 2013. He also previously served as the state’s Labor Commissioner. A subsequent Willamette Week article details some of the behind-the-scenes circumstances leading to his dismissal, and was followed up by an Oregonian article providing a different perspective.

An in-depth investigation by the Statesman Journal newspaper released in early April uncovered several issues involving the Department of Corrections (DOC). That article characterizes the state’s prison system as “short on officer oversight and fraught with complacency.”

The article goes on to state that security protocols have been neglected, leading to assaults among inmates and even unnoticed escape attempts. It further alleges corrections officers were sleeping and watching pornography while on the job, committing assault and insubordination, directing racial slurs and homophobic comments at inmates and committing sexual harassment of fellow employees.

Shortly after that article was published, the DOC director spoke with reporters to defend the agency’s performance. She acknowledged that the incidents that were reported in the press had occurred, but reiterated that DOC does “not stand for misconduct.” Her observation that the agency is in good shape and that corrections officers can learn from their mistakes is symptomatic of the widespread culture of lack of public accountability.

The DOC management issues came to light less than a month after the director of the Department of Environmental Quality resigned his position when it was revealed that neighborhoods in Southeast Portland were being subjected to pollution. In apparent response, the recently appointed interim director has announced random, unannounced inspections of more than 300 Oregon businesses that have no apparent history of unauthorized levels of air pollution.

The director of the Employment Department was fired by Brown in January after serving in that position since 2013. She was replaced just days after a state audit raised concerns about security lapses and tax troubles involving the department’s aging computer systems.

That occurred not too long after the director of the Department of Revenue (DOR) announced his retirement. His announcement came within days of lawmakers calling for a criminal investigation into the DOR and Department of Energy’s handling of tax credit programs.

The director of the Department of Administrative Services resigned in March 2015 under the cloud of scandal surrounding Kitzhaber’s resignation from office. The state’s chief operating officer made what observers believe was a career-ending choice the morning of February 18, 2015 when he ordered a criminal investigation by the Oregon State Police into how Willamette Week obtained some of Kitzhaber’s personal e-mails.

The Department of Human Services (DHS) director resigned last July following multiple lawsuits filed against the agency and media coverage of continued problems with its foster care program. Some of the Department’s issues go back more than a decade, but several other serious problems are recent and ongoing.

Other troubled agencies have seen multiple instances of turnover at the director level. The Oregon Health Authority (OHA) is on its fourth director since December 2013. Likewise, the Department of Energy (DOE) has had five directors in the last five years.

I’ve been assigned to a bipartisan, bicameral committee formed by the Legislature’s presiding officers in response to myriad troubles facing the DOE. The committee is tasked with providing oversight to the agency, determining what has gone wrong, and making recommendations to the Legislature regarding the agency’s future roles in state governance.

Oregon’s three largest agencies—the OHA, DHS and Department of Transportation (ODOT)–are all facing severe budget shortfalls coming into the 2017-19 biennium. Additionally, the financially troubled Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW) is working under a new director and significant budget deficits. I have also been assigned to a task force regarding funding for that agency.

ODOT is struggling with both long-term funding and management issues. A promised audit of the agency’s performance and spending priorities has yet to be initiated. The recently formed transportation committee should be charged with a deep and thorough evaluation of management and funding priority issues. That probe should be completed prior to any committee recommendations on funding for a new statewide transportation package.

Ironically, that ODOT director remains on the job, despite calls from Senate Republican Leader Ted Ferrioli (R-John Day) for him to step down due to revelations that the director had provided misleading information to legislators during deliberations on the much-needed statewide transportation package. That came after a public records request turned up correspondence between Brown’s office and California billionaire and environmental activist Tom Steyer.

That article in The Oregonian newspaper alleges the correspondence took place prior to the public hearing when the ODOT director’s testimony effectively derailed the transportation package that I and other lawmakers had spent months putting together. A seminal issue in those negotiations involved the future of the controversial Low Carbon Fuel Standard (LCFS). The Democrat majority, as well as many environmentalist organizations, insisted the LCFS be kept in place at the expense of funding for highway infrastructure improvements throughout the state.

Throughout the last few years, I’ve worked with all of these current and former directors in my legislative capacity. I have developed a good relationship with many of them and most have been extremely professional. It is not my intention to attempt to disparage their reputations or their considerable efforts.

However, that does not change the facts of the matter. At least a dozen state agencies are experiencing any number of serious and ongoing management and funding issues.

The duties of Oregon’s Governor include overseeing the management of every executive branch agency, as well as appointing most of the various commissions and boards that help oversee and set policy for those agencies.

Only time will tell if Governor Brown is up to the formidable task of correcting the course of these deeply troubled agencies.

Oregon’s future literally depends upon the outcome of her efforts.

Senator Doug Whitsett is the Republican state senator representing Senate District 28 – Klamath Falls

UPDATE (5/11/2016) – sacking related to lack of affordable housing?: The Director of Oregon Housing and Community Services has resigned, effective May 31, 2016. The director, Margaret Van Vliet, was appointed in 2011 by Governor John Kitzhaber. Gov. Kate Brown’s press release notes “Oregon Housing and Community Services is the state agency responsible for investing in housing and related services that assist in stabilizing Oregonians with low incomes.”