State Question 765 will decide fate of Human Services panel
BY WAYNE GREENE World Senior Writer
Monday, October 29, 2012
10/29/12 at 6:16 AM
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A Sunday debate over a proposal to do away with the Oklahoma Human Services Commission boiled down to a dispute over how well that panel has done overseeing the state's largest bureaucracy - the Oklahoma Department of Human Services.
State Question 765 effectively would eliminate the commission and give greater authority over DHS - including the right to hire and fire its director - to the governor.
Eight-year commission member Aneta Wilkinson and former commission member Steven Dow, executive director of Tulsa Community Action Project, debated the proposal at Temple Israel.
Wilkinson said she thinks the commission has done a good job of representing the needs and wants of the people and eliminating it would be giving more power to lawmakers, who have historically underfunded human services.
"Abolishing the Human Services Commission is simply a legislative power grab," Wilkinson said.
But Dow said the commission has done a poor job of overseeing the 7,000-employee DHS, and one of the results has been a series of expensive and embarrassing class-action federal lawsuits over the department's failures.
The commission effectively has become a rubber stamp of the desires of DHS staff leading to widespread, bipartisan frustration among legislators, who determine how much money the state will spend on human services, Dow said.
He said that as a commissioner, he was told not to attend budget committee meetings so the DHS budget plans could operate outside the state Open Meetings Act, and when he tried to get the commission to probe closely the deaths of children in DHS custody, he couldn't get any support for the effort.
"Essentially, there was indifference on the part of the commission," Dow said.
Wilkinson conceded that the commission has gotten "our share of bad press recently," but she said there is no failure on the part of the panel to oversee DHS activities.
"Our commission has been accused of being asleep at the wheel," she said. "I can assure you this is not the case."
Wilkinson and Dow agreed that the proposal's ballot-title language is poor.
The ballot says the measure would do away not only with the commission but also with the DHS itself.
The confusion and uncertainty of such a proposal could easily lead to terrible unintended consequences, Wilkinson said.
Dow said the DHS would not be eliminated by the passage of SQ 765. Other state statutes assure the continuation of the agency. Only the governance of the agency would be changed, he said.
No other state has a commission-led human services agency, and putting responsibility for the agency in the hands of the governor gives accountability to an official who answers to the people, he said.
But Wilkinson said eliminating the people's representatives in governing DHS and empowering the governor would take power from those who have closely studied the issues facing the agency and give it to an elected official with only occasional interest in its issues.
Further, she said, the change would take key questions of state government out of the public arena.
"If this measure should pass, the transparency of the agency would greatly diminish," Wilkinson said.
Original Print Headline: SQ 765 will decide fate of DHS commission
Wayne Greene 918-581-8308
Steven Dow (left) and Aneta Wilkinson: Dow said the commission has done a poor job of overseeing the DHS staff. Wilkinson said passing the measure will impair the agency's transparency.