Agency reforms maintain vital role for Board oversight (Capitol Update)

During the last legislative session, Governor Stitt’s signature program was wresting authority from boards and commissions for the hiring and firing of agency directors. The Legislature agreed, and passed bills giving the governor that authority for five major agencies (the Oklahoma Health Care Authority, Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services, Office of Juvenile Affairs, Department of Corrections, and Department of Transportation). Part of the debate was how that would be accomplished. Initial proposals included eliminating boards and commissions, with the appointed director both making and executing the agency policies at the direction of the governor. The final bills established nine-member boards with the governor appointing five members and the legislative leadership appointing four. The governor was given hiring and firing authority over the agency directors. The boards establish and approve policy. Board members can be removed by their appointing authority.

A recent meeting of the Office of Juvenile Affairs (OJA) board demonstrates the wisdom of legislators in creating the mixed structure they approved. At issue in the meeting was development of a statewide plan determining the number, location, and services of juvenile detention facilities and beds. This is a knotty problem, last considered in 2008, involving OJA, local juvenile bureaus, existing detention facilities, and county officers and budgets. Adding to the complexity, local juvenile judges decide whether a youth will be detained pending trial or placement. The plan will be considered at a later board meeting.

During a presentation by OJA leaders and board interaction, several board members engaged in a robust discussion on considerations for future development of the plan. Among the board members making comments were the Chair, Tony Caldwell, and members Janet Foss and Dr. Stephen Grissom.

Caldwell is a businessman and former Republican legislator who built a successful insurance agency. He has a long history of industry and community service. Foss is a retired special district judge who has worked with juveniles in many capacities during her career, including as a social worker, assistant district attorney and juvenile judge. Dr. Grissom has taught at the university level periodically since 1976, having held full-time positions with Oklahoma State University and Northeastern State University, where he is presently employed. In addition, he previously served as a psychologist for several state agencies including a stint as Chief Psychologist for OJA.

It remains to be seen how gubernatorial appointment and dismissal of agency directors will work out. It certainly gives the governor a stronger hand in getting his way. Without boards and commissions, decisions like the future statewide detention plan would likely be made with input from staffers at OJA and in the governor’s office. As the meeting of the OJA board demonstrates, it would be a shame to forfeit the contribution of knowledgeable citizens who volunteer their time, energy, and expertise to make our state policies better.


Steve Lewis served as Speaker of the Oklahoma House of Representatives from 1989-1990. He currently practices law in Tulsa and represents clients at the Capitol.

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