DHS commissioners voted Thursday to close Oklahoma's two residential centers for adults with developmental disabilities at a heated meeting in which Commission Chairman Wes Lane threatened to have a state senator escorted out of the packed meeting room.
The commission voted 6-3 to close the Northern Oklahoma Resource Center in Enid and the Southern Oklahoma Resource Center in Pauls Valley.
Commissioners set an April 30, 2014, deadline for the closure of the Pauls Valley center and an Aug. 31, 2015, deadline for the closure of the Enid institution.
There are 123 residents at the Pauls Valley center and 108 at the center in Enid.
The vote outraged dozens of family members who were in attendance.
“The commission threw us under the bus. They did not make the right decision,” said Rosella House of Hinton, who has a son in one of the centers.
Patricia Appl, who has a sister at the Southern Oklahoma Resource Center, said she resented commissioners describing family members as scared and not understanding what was best for residents.
“I am not scared and irrational,” she said. “We live in the real world with these real people.”
Appl said she is deeply concerned by the commissioners' vote and hopes “other citizens will be equally concerned and express their concerns in their votes on Tuesday.”
One of the state questions on next Tuesday's ballot calls for eliminating the Human Services Commission and replacing it with a system where the governor appoints the DHS director and there are a series of advisory panels.
The aging condition of the Enid and Pauls Valley centers has put pressure on commissioners to make a decision about their futures. Both are more than 100 years old and officials have estimated it would take $30 million to $40 million worth of repairs to keep them open.
The vote to close the centers was preceded by a verbal clash between Commission Chairman Lane, a former district attorney, and state Sen. Patrick Anderson, R-Enid.
Anderson had angered commissioners the previous day by issuing a news release with a headline that said: “Governor directs DHS Commission to throw disabled out on street.”
Commissioner Brandon Clabes criticized Anderson for that remark, saying he was “appalled” and wanted people to know “that was absolutely incorrect.”
Thursday, Anderson once again aggravated commissioners by walking to the microphone and criticizing them for preparing to vote on a resolution to close the centers without first giving family members of residents a chance to read and respond to it.
Chairman Lane quickly ruled Anderson out of order.
“Sir, you are out of order, and I'm going to do one of two things,” Lane said. “I'm going to ask you to maintain the decorum, or I'm going to ask you to leave. What's it going to be?”
Anderson retorted that Lane was “making a mockery of this entire process,” prompting Lane to threaten to have him removed if he didn't cease.
Anderson then walked away from the microphone.
Before presenting the resolution to close the centers, Lane publicly read a one-page letter sent to state newspapers by Diana McCalment, the former president of Hissom Memorial Center in Sand Springs. Hissom is an institution similar to the centers at Pauls Valley and Enid that was closed in 1994 due to a class-action lawsuit that resulted in residents being moved into community-based settings.
“When the court ordered Hissom closed, I thought I had lost control and choice,” McCalment wrote. “I couldn't have been more wrong.”
McCalment said her son's subsequent life in the community was the “most fulfilling time of his life,” and that she now fully supports closing both remaining institutions.
Lane told the crowd of more than 200 people that commissioners had studied and agonized over the decision for months before concluding that closure of the institutions and moving residents to community-based settings provided them with the best opportunity for meaningful and productive lives.
Commissioner Michael Peck of Enid, who in June presented a proposal to close just the Pauls Valley center and move some of its residents to the Enid facility, urged commissioners to vote against Lane's resolution.
Peck said while his plan was undergoing public scrutiny, the governor's office and staff members of the DHS department of developmental disabilities services division were putting together the plan voted on Thursday “behind closed doors.”
“Interestingly, I was given no input on how this resolution works and I don't think any of the other commissioners were, either,” he said.
Commissioners Clabes and Lane jumped to the defense of Gov. Mary Fallin. They said she personally spent many hours talking with residents' families and visiting the institutions and community-based alternatives, but had not advised them how to vote.
“I have had no conversations with Gov. Fallin on this motion or any votes or the future of either NORCE or SORC,” Clabes said. “Instead of criticizing the governor, I feel we should be grateful that we have a governor who cares enough about doing what is right, especially in dealing with our physically and mentally disabled clients.”
Lane echoed Clabes' remarks, saying, “The governor never asked me to do anything other than figure out what I thought the right thing to do was.”
“I never received any instruction from her — never was told how to vote. Politics has had nothing to do with my decision in this,” he said.
Commissioners Aneta Wilkinson and Linda English Weeks joined Peck in voting against the plan.
Plans for closure
The resolution contains many assurances that parents, guardians and family members of residents will be given plenty of time and opportunity to participate in the development of individual plans, so that moves of residents into the community will be successful.
DHS staff members will begin contacting family members soon, said Sheree Powell, DHS spokeswoman.
The governor and state Senate President Pro Tempore Brian Bingman issued news releases shortly after the vote praising the commission's decision.
“Outcomes for individuals in community settings have proven to be better than outcomes produced by institutional care,” Fallin said. “Shifting our resources to community-based services will ensure that the greatest number of Oklahomans can get the highest quality of direct support, rather than spending tax dollars on the upkeep of large vacant buildings at the state's two aging institutions.”
The Oklahoma Public Employees Association countered with its own news release, saying, “The actions today reek of desperation and a lack of transparency of a commission that could be voted out of existence next Tuesday. We believe the closure of both centers threatens our state's most defenseless citizens and that's just wrong.”
Commissioner Clabes said he believes commissioners made the right decision.
“Will everybody thrive and improve with this change? Only God knows, and I firmly believe the majority, if not all, will do better,” he said.
Peck argued that closing both institutions would put the state at the mercy of community care providers who would be free to charge the state “basically whatever they want,” because the state would have no alternative place for people who are developmentally disabled.
Business leaders in both Pauls Valley and Enid voiced concern about the economic impact on their communities.
“It will be devastating,” said Della Wilson, president of the Pauls Valley Chamber of Commerce. “It's our second-largest employer.”
The Southern Oklahoma Resource Center has 279 employees. It is second only to the Walmart Distribution Center, which employs about 570, she said.
Wilson said she expects the economic impact will reverberate not just through Pauls Valley, but surrounding communities, as well.
Some families have both husbands and wives who work at the center and likely will have to relocate, she said.
In Enid, the impact of the closure of the Northern Oklahoma Resource Center will be “substantial,” but not as devastating as the impact of the other closure on Pauls Valley, said Jon Blankenship, president of the Greater Enid Chamber of Commerce.
The Northern Oklahoma Resource Center has 292 employees. It is Enid's 10th-largest employer, he said.
Vance Air Force Base is Enid's largest employer, with a combined military and private contractor payroll of about 2,500 employees, he said.
The community's largest private sector employer is AdvancePierre Foods with between 1,600 and 1,700 local employees, Blankenship said.
“Actually, our local economy has been doing quite well,” he said. “Unemployment has hovered around the 3 percent level for month after month. Our sales tax revenue is up about 16 percent for calendar year to date. ... Our local economy has been booming. A lot of it is energy related.”
Still, the closure will definitely be felt, Blankenship said, noting that not only will Enid feel the direct payroll loss, but a lot of items are purchased locally for the center.