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Politics | Environment

Ex-Environmental Commissioner Says Gov. Brown Fired Her Over Hiring Decision

Oregon Gov. Kate Brown says that by all accounts, the Affordable Care Act has been a huge benefit for Oregon.

Oregon Gov. Kate Brown says that by all accounts, the Affordable Care Act has been a huge benefit for Oregon.

Anna Reed/Statesman Journal

One of the three Environmental Quality Commission members fired by Oregon Gov. Kate Brown says they were kicked off the panel because they went against the governor’s wishes with their choice for the head of the state’s pollution-regulating agency.

The account, provided Thursday by former commissioner Colleen Johnson, contradicts that of the governor. Brown said her decision, announced Wednesday, was based on the Environmental Quality Commission’s inability to implement policies and respond to challenges, which culminated with problems in its process for selecting a new director.

But according to Johnson, Brown “at the 11th” hour made her wishes known about the hiring decision, and “went so far as to suggest that any decision contrary to her wishes could have negative consequences.”

“We did our job, we did it with integrity, with independence,” Johnson said in a phone interview. Johnson, a professor at Eastern Oregon University, had served on the commission since December.

“I’m a bit angry that the three of us were punished for doing our job,” she said.

Johnson said she communicated as much when she received the phone call yesterday from one of Brown’s policy advisors, and she found out she had been fired, along with commissioners Morgan Rider and Melinda Eden.

“I told him that they could spin whatever narrative they wanted to about the process and new voices but I knew as he did as well, that this was about a decision that the governor was more than unhappy about — angry about — and the three of us were her way of getting back at that decision,” Johnson said.

The commission selected Richard Whitman, a former policy advisor to the governor, as the agency’s permanent director, in February. The decision was unanimous. The other finalist for the position was Leanne Mosby, who had worked at the Missouri Department of Natural Resources. That decision came after multiple searches, spanning nearly a year.

Richard Whitman, director of the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality

Richard Whitman, director of the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality

Oregon DEQ

Rider, who had served on the commission since 2012 before being removed this week, said she has no regrets and would still choose Whitman if given a second chance.

“I don’t think we would have found anybody who was more committed to Oregonians, Oregon and improving the quality of life and the environment here,” Rider said. “He was the best candidate knowing the issues and the people and the history.”

The Eugene Register-Guard reported Wednesday Brown’s decision related to “negative personal history” between her and Whitman.

Brown said she did not disagree with the decision to hire Whitman, just the process.

“I have complete confidence in Richard Whitman’s ability to lead the agency. What I want to do is make sure that I have an environmental quality commission that I can work collaboratively with.”

Through a DEQ spokeswoman, Whitman declined comment, deferring to the governor’s office.

Brown said the decision to fire three commissioners was the result of the commission’s inability lead DEQ on multiple issues.

“I believe that the public deserves better,” Brown said. “The Department of Environmental Quality has struggled in recent years.”

Brown’s office described the search for a new director as indicative of the commission’s inability to execute her vision for Oregon’s DEQ.

“I expressed my concern to commissioners at the time in terms of the process and the lack of transparency.” Brown said. “The process of hiring the director is simply one example of struggles, of the Environmental Quality Commission not working as successfully as it might.”

Brown’s swift dismissal of the commissioners prompted criticism from House Republican Leader Mike McLane, who wanted a more thorough explanation for the firings.

“Not only were these firings unexpected, the decision to fire a majority of a commission is perhaps unprecedented in our state’s history,” McLane said in a statement. “Oregonians deserve transparency when it comes to public boards and commissions.”

The decision also leaves Oregon’s Environmental Quality Commission without enough members to be able to vote on policy decisions until Brown’s new appointees are confirmed by the state Senate. The commission next meeting is scheduled for April.

Kathleen George, Wade Mosby and Molly Kile are being considered for the commission. George is a member of the Grande Ronde Tribal Council and the owner of a natural resources consulting firm. Mosby is former vice president of a forest products company and founder of a forestry stewardship certification program. Kile is a professor at Oregon State University who studies maternal and child exposure to chemicals in the environment.


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