Mini-Dust Up Between Legislators and the Governor's Office

Senator Doug Whitsett, R-Klamath Falls, accused the governor's office last week of muzzling agency directors who are asked to appear before legislative committees to discuss pending bills.

The impetus for his charge?

The governor's chief of staff, Curtis Robinhold, sent a memorandum to agency directors in early February that said:

"There should be no surprises to the Governor's Office on the input agencies provide in formal committee testimony or otherwise regarding pending legislation. As such, even if expressing a 'neutral' position and providing factual information, agencies must provide a heads up to the Governor's Legislative Director and assigned Policy Advisor in advance. Agencies must obtain authorization from the Governor's Legislative Director or their assigned Policy Advisor before supporting or opposing bills, whether at their own initiative or when asked for input from stakeholders or legislators."

The memo went on to note that authority would be granted to speak on a case-by-case basis if the "position is important to the mission of the agency, if the position is consistent with the governor's current budget recommendations and if the position will not create excessive controversy that could distract from the Governor's higher-level agenda and message."

Senator Whitsett took the words to mean a muzzle. And, he said in an e-mail newsletter he would ask the Legislative Counsel Office for a legal opinion "regarding Governor Kitzhaber's authority to suppress the speech of Oregon public employees."

Well, no one is sure how serious of a dust up the accusation will end up being. For one thing – and I draw on this point from my 15 years in state government management positions – there always has been an expectation that key agency officials will speak for the governor because, after all, they serve at the pleasure of the governor and are members of the Executive Branch, not the Legislative Branch. This especially was true in the past after the governor released his "Recommended Budget" for a given biennium. Agency directors were then told to advocate for that budget and to avoid getting off message.

What's different this time around is that the instructions from the governor's office were placed in a formal written memorandum for all the world to see -- and for legislators, especially those on the Republican side, to ponder.

Ponder they did, and the result was Senator Whitsett's appeal to the Legislative Counsel Office.

Will this matter in the long run? Probably not. In my experience, smart agency heads know how to walk a tightrope at the Capitol – a tightrope between the governor's expectations on one hand and legislative scrutiny on the other.

I suspect the smart ones will continue to strike the right balance.

Note:  Dave Fiskum worked for several agencies during his 15 year career in state government, including Portland State University, the Department of Human Resources, the Department of Human Resources and the Executive Department. He also served for a time as press secretary for Oregon Governor Vic Atiyeh. In each of these positions, he walked the tightrope described above.

Photo caption: Curtis Robinhold (left), Chief of Staff to Governor John Kitzhaber, and Senator Doug Whitsett, R-Klamath Falls.