This editorial was originally published in The East Oregonian, on March 31 about Gov. Brown's firing of three environmental commission members:
In a move that defies both logic and comprehension, Oregon Gov. Kate Brown abruptly fired three members of the Oregon Environmental Quality Commission.
This is the latest episode of the governor's meddling in the business of a supposedly independent state commission.false
Sen. Bill Hansell, R-Athena, had it right when he said, "We cannot have the governor of our beautiful state firing Senate-confirmed volunteer members of a commission, simply because they don't do what she wants them to do."
Legally, a governor has the authority to fire political appointees, including commission members. But such actions should be exceedingly rare and must be fully explained. Oregonians deserve that, especially given Brown's professed commitment to transparency.
Nothing about her action makes sense. That includes the press release issued by her office on Wednesday. It announced her appointment of three new members to the Environmental Quality Commission, thanked the three departing members, avoided saying they had been fired, and gave no clue to her reasoning — including why she kept two members.
But the political infighting seems to come down to the commission's recent hiring of Richard Whitman to head the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality, an agency that has endured rough times. Whitman is a former aide to Brown and Gov. John Kitzhaber, and a former director of the state Department of Land Conservation and Development. He served as acting DEQ director so it is not surprising that the commission unanimously gave him the permanent job after conducting a national search.
Brown's staff said she was dissatisfied with the selection process — that it took too long and was insufficiently "collaborative" with the governor's office. Yet they said Brown had confidence in Whitman's abilities.
The first part of the governor's concern may highlight a flaw in the hiring process — that independent commissions and semi-autonomous agencies, which abound in state government, might lack the expertise and resources to adequately manage top-level hiring. That concern deserves a close look by the Legislature during the final three months of its 2017 session.
But the question of "collaboration" is deeply troubling. State law clearly says the governor shall appoint the commission members, the state Senate shall decide whether to confirm those appointments, and the commission shall appoint the DEQ director.false
Given that Whitman is in place and Brown professes confidence in him, why now sack a majority of the commissioners?
The ousted commissioners say it's because Brown did not want them to appoint Whitman. They also say that Brown was late in making her desires known.
Even if those allegations are only partially true, they raise serious questions about how much involvement a governor should have in a supposedly independent commission.
Brown has been at odds with the Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission over gillnetting in the Columbia River. She also defied her fellow members of the State Land Board in ordering the Division of State Lands to create a plan for keeping the Elliott State Forest in public ownership. As in this latest instance, her rationale was not fully explained.
The trend is disturbing.
Oregonians have wanted stronger leadership from Gov. Brown. But her sacking of three EQC commissioners smacks of retribution, not leadership.