An impossible job done as well as it could be by departing DHS Director (Capitol Update)

Recently on the radio I heard a pundit being asked about his opinion of the performance of the just-resigned British Prime Minister Theresa May. He said, “She had an impossible job and she did it poorly.” I thought of Ed Lake at the time (the impossible job part) wondering if he would remain head of DHS. Like May with Brexit, Lake’s entire tenure as DHS director seemed to be subsumed by the child welfare crisis and implementation of the “Pinnacle Plan.” He had an impossible job and he did it probably as well as it could be done by anyone.

Would that be good enough? Apparently, it was, but that wasn’t the criteria on which the governor made his decision about a director for DHS. The governor praised Lake, citing the recent report of the court-appointed co-neutrals which stated that “DHS has made good-faith efforts to make substantial and sustained progress in 29 of the 31 target areas.” In his press conference announcing Lake’s departure and the appointment of the new director, the governor thanked Lake for a good job and essentially said now that that’s done, it’s time to turn a new page and fix the other problems at DHS with a new director. It remains to be seen whether the Pinnacle Plan is really done. If so, the new DHS director will be a lot better off than the new Prime Minister, who is still stuck with the Brexit challenge.

The new DHS director, Justin Brown, looks a lot like, well, Governor Stitt — although it’s no insult to say with a few less achievements under his belt. He’s been basically a finance guy, as was the governor. Brown was a banker at BOK Financial, then managed a series of investment companies before becoming CEO of Villagio Capital Partners, owner of Villagio Senior Living Centers.

The governor has now appointed two social service agency directors, DHS and the Office of Juvenile Affairs (OJA). With the appointments, he has searched for talent from two different directions. He appointed Steven Buck as Director of OJA after a lengthy career in the mental health arena. Buck had served for 10 years with NAMI, the National Alliance on Mental Illness, and 9 years as Deputy Commissioner for Communications and Prevention at the Oklahoma Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services (ODMHSAS). He had also served for three years as Executive Director of OJA prior to his re-appointment by Governor Stitt.

The governor has also appointed Tim Gatz as Secretary of Transportation and Executive Director of the Oklahoma Department of Transportation after a 29-year career at ODOT, which seems to be the norm for that agency.

With Justin Brown, the governor chose someone out of the finance sector from which he came. It will be interesting to see for the remainder of his picks if he goes with newcomers to state government, with or without subject matter expertise, promotes from within, or sticks with the directors who were previously hired by the boards and commissions. His appointments so far don’t give much of a hint. He has yet to make appointments of directors for the Departments of Health, Corrections, ODMHSAS, and the Oklahoma Health Care Authority.


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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