The Mysterious Demise of our State Librarian

Kate Brown fired MaryKay Dahlgreen earlier this week, and days later it’s remarkably difficult to find out why. Our former State Librarian isn’t afraid to talk to the press about it, but she doesn’t seem to know either.

The governor actually had nominated Dahlgreen for another term. Dahlgreen’s name was on the list of executive appointments that Kate Brown’s office submitted to the Oregon Senate Rules Committee, and Dahlgreen was supposed to appear at a confirmation hearing on February 8th, but The Portland Tribune reports Dahlgreen says that just days before the hearing “I received a call from the Governor’s Office telling me that there appeared to be some problem with my appointment with the Senate, and that they would look into it and get back to me.” The hearing came and went. Then suddenly on March 8th she was told she didn’t have support in the Senate and was given the choice to resign or be removed. After giving it some thought, Dahlgreen chose to be forced out because she could not think of a reason for resigning.

This all strikes me as bizarre. Unlike the head of the Oregon Health Authority being sacked for obviously high-stake failures, our long-standing state librarian is a highly respected professional. The Oregonian reports Dahlgreen’s collegues are quick to come to her defense:

Ann Malkin, the chair of the Oregon State Library Board of Directors, said that the board and librarians throughout the state thought Dahlgreen did a great job.

“We hate to lose her expertise and her leadership,” Malkin said.

Malkin was surprised to receive a call from the governor’s office that informed her of the decision to remove Dahlgreen. Malkin expected that the board would have input, the chance to advocate for Dahlgreen or at least a heads up on a major decision like that.

“People talk a lot about transparency in government, and I think when you make major decisions like this, that it’s good to do this in an open forum where people have a chance to bring forward information and maybe educate people about the role that person has played in the organization and how she has performed her job duties,” Malkin said.

Also, this came during the first legislative session where such a political decision was even possible. The Oregon State Librarian used to be an independent office that was held accountable by a board of trustees until the 2015 Legislative Session’s HB 3523 changed that, first by immediately replacing the apolitical trustees with a politically appointed State Library Board that serves at the pleasure of the Governor. Second, it gave the Governor the power to appoint a State Librarian that also serves at Mahonia Hall’s pleasure, but the next section of the bill contained specific language intended to delay this power until after the end of the 2017 legislative session: “SECTION 13. Notwithstanding section 12 of this 2015 Act, the individual serving as State Librarian on the day before the effective date of this 2015 Act may serve as State Librarian until July 1, 2017.”

It’s darn peculiar that a woman who has the broad admiration of the librarian profession in this state and had specific legal language preserving her employment would suddenly be removed under such opaque circumstances. The most Governor Brown’s Office has publicly communicated on this has been through spokeswoman Kate Kondayen, saying that Dahlgreen “fell short of clear and timely expectations from legislators, and as a result of these performance issues, did not have the Senate support necessary for confirmation.”

Kondayen went on to say: “Once qualms about her confirmation came to light, and in consideration of stability for state library staff and programming, the Governor’s Office offered to pursue a collaborative transition out of the role. Ms. Dahlgreen instead chose to be terminated and leave the State Library under unplanned and immediate circumstances.”

I actually admire Dahlgreen’s decision not to resign. No pushover, she didn’t go quietly into the night. Instead, in a reading-room-quiet way, Dahlgreen has sort of led a charge of the librarian light brigade.

This wasn’t a Republican effort. A spokeswoman for the Oregon Senate Republicans has publicly made that clear, but the Office of Senate Majority Leader Ginny Burdick (D-Portland) confirmed the Governor’s statement was accurate, but declined to comment further because it was a “personnel/performance related matter.”

What’s even more strange is the only hint of concern from the Oregon Senate seems to be that Dahlgreen was insufficiently aggressive in removing duplication. Malkin thinks redundancy in library services was a key area of concern for the Senate but says they’d all “been working diligently to accomplish the spirit of what the legislation had in mind.”

So Oregon Senate Democrats are on a warpath to stamp out state agency waste? And they will block the appointment of whomever needs to be blocked to save taxpayers’ money? If this was consistently the case with Oregon Democrats I might believe that.

Why get arbitrarily medieval with the Oregon State Librarian? There’s got to be more to this story. I’ve asked around, and can’t get any more details. If you have some to share please post them in the comments below.


Eric Shierman lives in Salem and is the author of We were winning when I was there.