State experiencing churn in agency directors (Capitol Update)

With the departure of Oklahoma Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services Commissioner Carrie Slatton-Hodges on Dec. 31 and Office of Juvenile Affairs Executive Director Rachel Holt leaving last month, four of the state’s largest health and social service agencies are now under new leadership. Gov. Stitt will appoint a new ODMHSAS Director to replace Slatton-Hodges. Jeffrey Cartmell has already taken office as Executive Director of OJA after his appointment by the governor.

Oklahoma Health Care Authority Executive Director Kevin Corbett resigned last July and Department of Human Services Director Justin Brown resigned in August last year. Corbett was replaced by Ellen Buettner at OHCA and Dr. Deborah Shropshire, M.D. is the new Executive Director of DHS. 

The fifth major health and human services agency, the Oklahoma Department of Health, has a relatively new commissioner also with Keith Reed having been nominated for Health Commissioner by Gov. Stitt in April 2022, but he had served as Interim Commissioner since October 2021. The legislature changed the qualifications for Reed to qualify as commissioner.

I think with the change giving the governor the hiring and firing of agency directors, the state will continue to see more turnover in agency leadership. Political appointees will come and go rather than seeing their job as a career. In the five agencies above, a majority of the boards are appointed by the governor and serve at the pleasure of the governor so, in effect, the governor can control both the boards and the directors. 

Agency directors begin to wonder what will happen to their job when a new governor is elected. They must keep their options open in case they fall from favor, and once they start looking there are usually plenty of attractive offers out there for talented people. 

Until recently, agency directors were hired by the agency boards or commissions who were appointed by the governor and confirmed by the Senate for fixed, staggered terms, which gave them a degree of independence. The idea was for state agencies to have one degree of separation from politics. Usually governors, with their bully pulpit and the respect they earned by being governor, could get their way with the boards and commissions. They just had to work at it. If they didn’t get their way, maybe there was a reason.

Oklahoma lost two outstanding agency directors just in the last couple of months with Director Holt and Commissioner Slatton-Hodges leaving. Each of them left or is leaving for other opportunities. They may have left anyway regardless of the change in the hiring and firing process. But I think I can safely predict that as time goes on, Oklahoma’s state government is going to see agency directors coming and going more frequently. Whether you think that is good or bad is another whole discussion. 


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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