Editorial: Late Secretary of State set standard for exemplary public service

Dennis Richardson was a gift to Oregon – particularly to us, the rural residents who populate nine-tenths of the state’s geography.

Our Secretary of State died Feb. 26 after a nine-month battle against brain cancer. His public funeral was held March 6.

His passing leaves a gaping hole in Oregon’s leadership.

Richardson was a conservative Republican, but he knew how to work across the aisle. He was faithful to his principles, but he didn’t display the discord, if not outright hostility and lack of respect, that has characterized so much of political discourse in recent years.

More than that, though, he was a public servant – not lording it over the uninformed masses with all manner of aid initiatives to maintain a cycle of irresponsibility. Rather, he devoted himself to common-sense solutions for residents who don’t need a Big Brother, just honest and thrifty government.

For those of us whose recall of high school civics may be fuzzy, the Secretary of State is responsible for auditing public accounts, serving as the state’s chief elections officer, and administrating public records.

Our Secretary of State also serves on the Oregon State Land Board (which manages state lands, including those that are supposed to provide revenue to Common School Fund)  and chairs the Oregon Sustainability Board (which encourages activities that best sustain, protect and enhance the environment, economy and community for the present and future benefit of state residents).

Also, following every United States Census, if the Oregon Legislative Assembly cannot come to agreement over changes to legislative redistricting, that duty falls to the Secretary of State.

Richardson, 69, was the first Republican elected to statewide office in 14 years when he beat then-Labor Commissioner Brad Avakian in a bruising election for Secretary of State. He decided to run after losing an equally difficult race for governor to incumbent John Kitzhaber in 2014.

Suspicions about Kitzhaber’s activities were beginning to percolate in that election and Richardson tried to publicize the concerns, to his advantage in the race, but lost by 6 percentage points.

When he took office as Secretary of State in 2017, Richardson said he would avoid politicizing the office. We think he was pretty successful at that, to his credit. His administration focused heavily on the auditing functions of the Secretary of State’s office. And, despite some complaints to the contrary, it did so in what appears to us to be a significantly nonpartisan way.

In a statement to news media sent out the day after his funeral, his staff listed some of what they said were his accomplishments: implementing nationally recognized “best practices” to improve the department and taking other steps to improve working conditions for employees, expanding electronic public records management system, instituting the “award-winning” Kid Governor program, and identifying “over $100 million in questionable government spending” through “key” audits.

It wasn’t that auditing hadn’t been taking place prior to Richardson, but his predecessors didn’t delve into the inner workings of state agencies the way he did.

If any of that list is window dressing, the last is certainly not. That’s service to all of us.

Almost immediately upon his taking office in 2016, Richardson’s staff began producing audits of state departments and their functions. It’s a long list:

n March 2017: Oregon Department of Transportation: ODOT should better scrutinize construction costs and project changes by tracking line item bids with abnormally high or low prices.

n November 2017: Oregon Health Authority likely misspent millions of taxpayer dollars, stymied an effort to shed light on its problems and failed to keep pace as the state’s caseload in its $9.3 billion Medicaid program nearly doubled.

n December 2017: Although the Oregon Department of Education had geared its graduation-boosting initiatives toward early education, minority students, tackling chronic absenteeism and a small number of public schools with very high dropout rates, a new audit recommended  the state also focus on students from low-income families, middle school students, and students who transfer between districts during their high school years.

n January 2018: The Department of Human Services’ Child Welfare System has been slow and indecisive in responding to a growing foster care crisis, which has increased risks to the children the system was created to serve.

Auditors found a declining number of foster homes, overwhelming staff caseloads, and foster children who are spending days or weeks in hotels instead of in more appropriate placements.

They also found a work culture of blame and distrust that undermines agency efforts to protect the safety and wellbeing of foster children.

n May 2018: Oregon State Police, which had a significant statewide backlog of approximately 4,900 unprocessed Sexual Assault Forensic Evidence kits in 2015, has taken actions consistent with statutory requirements and national best practices to address the SAFE Kit backlog.

n October 2018: The state’s PERS public pension agency is unprepared for a major disaster, such as an earthquake or flood, and struggles to maintain its information technology resources, putting  Oregonians’ personal information at risk if the agency doesn’t do more to protect its systems from attacks.

n December 2018: The state could have saved as much as $1.6 billion if it had a better system for tracking government contracts and spending, according to an audit of the Administrative Services Department.

n December 2018: The Oregon Health Authority’s Prescription Drug Monitoring Program, which monitors addictive painkiller prescriptions, has shortcomings that hamper the state’s ability to fight the opioid epidemic.

n January 2019: The state Department of Education and Portland Public Schools needed to do more to evaluate costs and eliminate persistent barriers to student performance at struggling, high-poverty schools.

n January 2019: The Oregon Liquor Control Commission’s system for regulating marijuana needs to be strengthened, due to weak regulations and a significant oversupply as fuel for the black market, which could lead to a federal crackdown. This audit followed another in 2018 that found OLCC had a large backlog of applications, and with too few inspectors to adequately monitor licensed marijuana operations.

Judge for yourself:  In the two years previous to his arrival, department auditors had completed reports on: the problem of child care costs in the state;  the need for better workforce planning at ODOT to maintain staff expertise; the need for improved teacher preparation and professional development;  the reliability of ODOT’s Transportation Environment Accounting and Management System, which manages its finances, and the need for improved controls on the system; and whether state highway funds allotted to Oregon Travel Experience, a semi-independent state agency that manages a variety of travel assistance programs, including 20 of Oregon’s 77 roadside rest areas, were being spent appropriately (they were) and whether recommendations from another audit done the year before were being implemented.

Clearly, there was value in those audits, but compared to what was accomplished under Richardson’s leadership, the comparison is almost laughable.

Common sense and public accountability were hallmarks of his tenure in the office. Richardson had been known as a conservative politician and had had some bruising experiences in the legislature and on the campaign trail.

The fact is, this man was about as close to the ideal public servant as Oregonians – particularly those of us in the rural population that inhabits 90 percent of the state, could hope for. Even his opponents agreed.

Oregon Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum called him “a wonderful and caring person – and, the quintessential public servant. His optimism for making Oregon stronger and fairer was contagious. I will miss our “check-in” lunches in Salem, where we talked about a wide variety of topics affecting both of our agencies. At our last lunch he gave me a coin with his motto engraved on it: ‘Having been given much, what will you give in return?’ I will treasure it always.”

In their statement, his staff said their boss “left a tremendous legacy of kindness, love and devotion to his family, friends and the people of Oregon.

“Secretary Richardson was an authentic statesman. He is an example of a life well lived. We pay tribute to his memory.”

What we rural Oregonians need most in these times is people like Dennis Richardson – who have the intelligence, character and strength of mind to stay true to their principles, and be able to do it without overt hostility and weak-kneed political vision that has come to characterize too much of our government leadership.

We can’t recall ever getting a statement like that from a state department, from the people who really know who their boss was.

Richardson, in our view, set an example of public service that should be the standard by which Oregon citizens should judge and elect all those who serve us.