Oklahoma voters will be asked in November whether changes should be made in governance of the Department of Human Services, a state agency that has undergone criticism, lawsuits and turmoil.
If approved, State Question 765 would eliminate the nine-member commission currently leading DHS under constitutional authority and replace it with four advisory boards created by legislation last session. Also, Gov. Mary Fallin would be granted the authority to hire and fire the executive director of DHS, a power currently granted to the commission.
Opponents of the measure say it will make DHS, an agency responsible for the welfare of Oklahoma's at-risk children and aging adults, vulnerable to the political whims of lawmakers and governors.
Proponents of the ballot measure, including the Senate author of the legislation, say the change in the state constitution is essential for the continued progress of an agency stymied by scandal in recent years.
DHS has come under considerable legislative and public scrutiny because of the deaths of children in its care. In settlement of a federal class-action lawsuit, the agency is to hire more child welfare workers, recruit more foster parents and move away from caring for abused and neglected children at shelters.
“This Legislature, this governor has decided we don't want excuses,” Sen. Greg Treat said. “We want to take a direct approach and try to impact DHS positively and reform it and change it. If the voters pass 765 they can now legitimately hold us accountable, directly accountable, for the performance or nonperformance of the agency.”
Treat said the existing nine-member commission appointed for nine-year terms originated from a 1936 ballot initiative to qualify the state for federal social services dollars.
He said most other states at that time implemented similar commissions.
“The commission gives a false impression of accountability and governance,” Treat said. “That's really insulated from the political process and that sounds good on the surface until you realize that the people you elect as legislators and or the governor really have very little control over the direction of the agency.”
Richard DeVaughn, a former commissioner who served nine years overseeing DHS, said State Question 765 is nothing more than a power grab by the governor and lawmakers, “which would essentially revert us back to the '20s and '30s when it was just pure political patronage.”
DeVaughn said the executive director would likely change with every new governor, and the position would no longer be held by professionals, but by those owed political favors.
“That director's job salary is say around $160,000,” said DeVaughn, who recently left the commission when his nine-year term ended. “So it's a pretty nice plum to hand out to someone.”
Treat said that the Senate must approve the governor's appointment and would guard against any strictly political appointees taking the office.
There has been considerable turnover on the commission in the past two years with some board members retiring, others resigning and one death.
Gov. Mary Fallin has now appointed six of the nine members.
Wes Lane, one of Fallin's appointees and current chairman, said he will leave the decision of whether to disband his commission entirely in the hands of voters.
“I really think this is just a function of the voters deciding whether they think the current commission is well engaged and doing their job,” Lane said.
“I'm at a different place than I was a year ago. I'm very upbeat about DHS. Everyone is on the same page, pulling the wagon in the same direction.
“I think that bodes very well, and whatever the entity is coming out of November, I'm confident that everyone will still pull the wagon in the right direction.”
He said advisory boards are wonderful if those in charge listen to the advice they give, and he said he has complete faith in the current governor to appoint a sound director.
The previous executive director, Howard Hendrick, retired in January, and Lane said the commission could replace him as soon as next week.
“We've been careful to work with the governor on that recognizing that any director that we as a commission chose would really ultimately need her approval knowing that she may well be in control of their destiny after the election,” Lane said.