The War Veterans Commission hired an executive director Friday to head the state's Veterans Affairs Department.
After interviewing two candidates in executive session, the board voted 5-3, with one commissioner absent, to retain interim director John McReynolds for the job at an annual salary of $125,000. The second candidate was Danny Stewart, director of the state Accrediting Agency.
The Veterans Affairs Department administers state resources and home care for veterans and runs seven nursing centers. The agency has been under scrutiny amid reports of abuse and mistreatment at some of the centers. A former employee was convicted Monday of sexually assaulting patients at the Veterans Center in Norman.
“That is an identical issue that we had at Ardmore, employees taking advantage of residents that are there,” said Maj. Gen. Rita Aragon, the governor's secretary of military and veterans affairs. “Those are ugly and bad news things and unfortunately that's what gets on the front of the paper as opposed to all the great service that we give them.”
Aragon also requested that staff give advance notice to herself and the governor when bad news is about to hit the press.
Gov. Mary Fallin replaced all but one board member in May and said she was working to overhaul the agency to improve quality of services and to protect veterans.
Fallin also called for an audit of the agency after interim director Martha Spear retired after 47 years of working for the agency, the last several years as executive director.
Commissioner Thomas Howell discussed his efforts to alter Oklahoma's Open Meetings Act to allow four or more commissioners to attend the same meetings and functions without violating state law.
“I'll just put it straight and plain and simple as I can,” Howell said.
“As a commissioner we cannot get together more than four of us without it being an Open Meeting Act.”
Howell said that causes problems because more than four commissioners are also members of the VFW and the American Legion.
He said he has spoken with two senators about proposing a bill to change the law to allow four or more commissioners to meet without it violating the state's open meetings law.
Oklahoma's Open Meeting Act requires that any gathering of a quorum — defined as voting majority of board members — must be a public event with an agenda and posted notice.
“I said just throw it all out and say commissioners can meet whenever they wanted to, to discuss the problem that you have so you can have an answer when you come to these meetings on the problems we are having to address now,” Howell said.
Commissioner Richard Putnam said the open meetings requirements are good.
“My interpretation is we're not prevented from attending things like conventions where we are all members, we are just prevented from meeting as commissioners during those events,” Putnam said. “In psychology we call it face validity. I think in order to have the public's trust we need to demonstrate we will not meet secretly.”