New Oregon Secretary of State Bev Clarno has fired top executives hired by her predecessor. Many observers fear that this signals a major change in the office, and a closer alignment with Democratic Governor Kate Brown. Brown appointed 83-year-old Clarno, a former Republican speaker of the House, to fulfill the remainder of the term for Dennis Richardson, who died in office in February.
On Monday, April 1, Secretary Clarno’s first day in office, she dismissed Deputy Secretary of State Leslie Cummings, chief of staff Deb Royal, and governmental and legal affairs director Steve Elzinga. Sources told PJ Media that Clarno did not personally tell the executives that they were no longer employed, but rather had the HR department carry out the firings with no notice or infill plan. Many Oregon voters have expressed concern that Richardson’s legacy was being undermined with these actions, and openly wondered at the motivations for appointing Clarno to the position.
Richardson’s bold use of public agency audits granted to the office of Secretary of State had caused particular embarrassment to the Brown administration. In addition, both Republicans and Democrats are jockeying for position in the upcoming fight to redraw legislative and congressional districts, which will follow the 2020 census.
When reached for comment, Jon Heynen, press secretary and digital strategist for the secretary of state, released a curt statement: “Secretary Clarno intends to build her own leadership team to assist her in managing the Secretary of State’s office,” he said.
Further requests to address the controversy of the personnel moves went unanswered.
Several public figures took to social media to express shock at the executive firings. Former State Rep. Julie Parrish (R-West Linn) posted this on her Facebook page:
Secretary Richardson had a solid team in place, working towards a vision of Accountability, Transparency, and Integrity in State government.
When it was announced that former Speaker of the House Bev Clarno would replace him, while I don’t know her personally, people I deeply trust told me she’d be a good fit, so I welcomed the chance to work with her.
The wholesale firing of Dennis’ executive team on her very first day, people he trusted to carry out his vision, who had a work plan in place for this year based on that vision, is an absolute shock to me, and even more shocking to his team. The new Secretary never even bothered to meet with them, just had the Department of Administrative Services demand their resignation letters.
I expect next on the chopping block people like Kim Sordyl, Richardson appointee to the state school board (a registered Democrat), who has worked to hold the board accountable for the failings in our education system. I also expect the Elections Director to go next as the Governor does not like Steve Trout. If that doesn’t come now, it will come after the May election.
Moreover, I have a deep concern that the 2019-20 audit plan could be in jeopardy. There are really important matters on that audit plan, including more public school audits, particularly focusing on children with disabilities.
I try to take people at their word and the forward facing message to the press last week was that the new Secretary would carry out Dennis’ vision. That appears not to be the case.
I will absolutely work every day between now and 2020 to find and support a candidate who will carry out what voters have come to expect from the Secretary of State’s office. Dennis Richardson set a high bar, and voters deserve no less.
Richardson’s daughter also took to Facebook to express her shock:
For background, Dennis Richardson was the first Republican elected to statewide office since the 1980s, after serving six terms in the House of Representatives. Prior to election as the secretary of state in 2016, Richardson represented a conservative district in southern Oregon, Despite his strongly conservative philosophy, colleagues on both sides of the aisle hailed him as congenial and well-liked. He was also known as a very effective legislator and executive.
When he assumed office as secretary of state, Richardson made it a priority to work across the aisle, bringing Democrats on in key positions. He also prioritized the audit department, a core function of the office. From the time he took office until his untimely death, Richardson and his audit staff exposed massive waste and inefficiencies in Portland Public Schools, the Oregon Health Authority, the Department of Human Services, and dozens of others.
Then, in June 2018, he announced that he was undergoing treatment for a brain tumor. He continued to work throughout his treatment, but later in 2018 he was forced to cut back his work schedule as treatments became more aggressive. He ultimately succumbed on February 27, 2019, a little over a year before he would have filed for reelection for the 2020 election cycle. State law says that the appointment to replace him must be from the same party.
After Richardson’s death, the Oregon Republican Party issued the following statement:
In 2016, Oregon voters elected Dennis Richardson to act as a check on the troubling excesses, abuses, and mismanagement coming to light within the state government in Salem. Thanks to the impartial oversight work of Secretary Richardson and his great team of auditors and staff, we now have a much clearer picture of what problems and inadequacies exist in our government agencies. So, it really matters that whomever is appointed to replace Secretary Richardson continues this crucial mission that voters sent him there to pursue.
According to the Oregon Constitution, the Governor must select a registered Republican to fulfill the remainder of Richardson’s current term of office. Unlike replacement appointees for partisan state legislative vacancies, the state law doesn’t provide for any formal party nominating process to specify nominees from which the Governor will choose. Therefore, there is currently no legally required process to determine that the replacement appointee for Secretary of State meets with the approval of Republican voters that the Governor is supposed to represent when she makes her selection. The appointee need only be a registered Republican and be preferred by the Governor.
The resolution issued by the Oregon Republican Party calls upon Governor Brown to honor the “spirit in which he (Richardson) was elected” by working with the Oregon Republican Party leadership to appoint a replacement from a pool of 3 to 5 “nominees” supplied by the party, consistent with the process used to fill state legislative vacancies.
It appears Governor Brown ignored this request. According to reports, Clarno only submitted her name to the governor’s office for consideration the day she attended Richardson’s state funeral in Salem.
With Democrats holding supermajorities in both chambers of the Oregon legislature, Kate Brown in the governor’s mansion, and mounting embarrassment for the party that’s been in charge for 30-plus years, it’s hard not to get the feeling, once again, that the fix is in.