Gov. Mary Fallin appointed former Oklahoma County prosecutor Wes Lane on Wednesday to serve as chairman of the Oklahoma Commission for Human Services.
Lane has been serving as a DHS commissioner since September, when Fallin appointed him to the agency's governing board.
“Since his appointment ..., Wes Lane has proven himself a dedicated advocate for Oklahoma's children and our most vulnerable citizens,” Fallin said in a statement. “In his new role as chairman of the DHS Commission, I expect Wes to continue to work toward implementing reforms at DHS — including the Pinnacle Plan to improve the child protection system — that will help improve the agency and the services it provides.”
Lane told The Oklahoman his top priorities will include working to make sure a top-quality agency director is selected as soon as possible, putting child welfare reforms in place and working to maintain continuity within the state's largest agency as it goes through a time of extraordinary upheaval.
It would be hard to imagine a more tumultuous time to serve as DHS chairman.
Rocked by a series of high-profile child abuse deaths, the agency settled a federal class-action lawsuit in January that alleged children were being harmed by their stays in DHS care.
As part of that settlement, the agency agreed to help craft a series of child welfare reforms that are to be approved and overseen by three out-of-state child welfare experts.
Longtime DHS Director Howard Hendrick announced his retirement in January.
Since then, three vacancies have opened up on the nine-member commission. Commissioners Steven Dow and Anne Roberts resigned in May amid concerns about possible conflicts of interest. Commissioner Jay Dee Chase died July 1.
The term of another commissioner, Richard DeVaughn, is scheduled to expire in August.
Brad Yarbrough added to the leadership vacuum in June when he announced he was resigning as chairman because of the excessive time commitment but would remain on as a commissioner. The announcement came at the same meeting that another commissioner was calling for Yarbrough's censure.
Public vote ahead
The Oklahoma Legislature contributed to the agency's current instability this past session when it passed legislation calling for a public vote in November on whether to abolish the DHS Commission and replace it with four citizen advisory panels with five members each that would be appointed by the governor and legislative leaders.
The advisory boards would look at four separate areas — children and family issues, developmental issues, aging issues and the agency's administration. Under proposed changes, the governor would appoint the DHS director with advice and consent of the Senate. Currently, the commission selects the director.
“I think it's a unique moment in history at DHS,” Lane said of the challenges he faces.
Lane, 56, said both the executive and legislative branches of government are strongly pushing reforms, and that creates opportunity.
Lane said he believes the commission should push forward with the process of selecting a new director but needs to work closely with the governor's office to make sure the person appointed is an individual the governor would want to appoint to continue serving in that position if voters abolish the commission.
Lane said he expects a headhunter firm to submit its list of top candidates by the end of summer. They will be considered along with Ed Lake, a retired deputy commissioner of the Department of Human Services in Tennessee, who was one of two top candidates who surfaced during an earlier search by DHS commissioners and staff members. The other top candidate from that search, former U.S. Ambassador to South Africa Eric Bost, has withdrawn his name from consideration, Lane said.
Lane said he also has been encouraging the governor to appoint people to fill vacant DHS Commission seats who would be qualified and willing to serve on one of the four DHS citizen advisory boards if Oklahomans vote to abolish the DHS Commission in November.
Lane said it is his impression the governor's office has been interviewing candidates for commissioner with that in mind.
Lane served as Oklahoma County's district attorney from July 2001 through the end of 2006.
He recently has been serving as chairman of a special subcommittee of the DHS Commission that has been reviewing cases of child abuse and neglect that ended in deaths and near deaths.