SALEM — Five weeks into her new job as Oregon secretary of state, Bev Clarno feels like she’s starting to hit her stride.
The former House speaker from Redmond was appointed by Gov. Kate Brown on March 31 to fill the rest of the term of Dennis Richardson, who died in February.
Brown appointed her, but Clarno, a Republican, said she is an independent voice whose real boss is the people of Oregon.
“I am here and doing the best to look out for them and look out for their interests,” she said.
Clarno sat for an interview last week in her office in the Capitol. Her desk was covered with a neat row of folders. On one wall, she has hung a large photo of her on a horse in front of the Capitol in 1995 when she was speaker of the House. In another space, Clarno has tacked up cards from well-wishers.
Clarno’s appointment has been greeted with widespread though not unanimous praise by Democrats and Republicans. Her decision to dismiss some top staff hired by Richardson, along with the resignation of his appointee to the state Board of Education, have roiled some Republicans in Salem.
“I think any time you make major changes, there is going to be a lot of criticism, whether it is justified or not,” Clarno said.
So far, Clarno’s official actions have been to issue follow-up reports on audits initiated by Richardson. She’s given a thumbs-up to the Office of Emergency Management for preparing for a possible Cascadia earthquake, the Department of Environmental Quality for improving air quality permits, and Oregon State Police for tackling the backlog of sexual assault kit testing. The Department of Education received a mixed review for implementing recommendations to improve the state’s poor high school graduation rate.
Clarno said she plans on following Richardson’s audit plan and will have reports out as they are finished by staff.
“I meet almost every day with the director of audits and go over various issues,” Clarno said. “I find the audit plan is very acceptable .”
One exception is a planned audit of the $27 billion unfunded long-term liability of the Public Employees Retirement System, known as PERS.
“That has to be addressed by the Legislature and unions, in my opinion, to be resolved,” Clarno said. “An audit that says we’ve got this liability, OK, duh. What do we do? I don’t know if I want to be spending taxpayer money auditing something we can’t resolve.”
Clarno is working with county clerks to ensure that voting systems are secure for the 2020 election.
“I am confident the process they use is excellent as far as having watchers, cameras all over the place and lots of security,” she said. “So once the ballots get there, I am very confident it is a good process.”
She plans on visiting the clerk in every county before the election.
“I’ve visited Crook County and Jefferson County and hope to visit Deschutes County next time I am home,” she said.
Though she has been away from Salem for over a decade, her time as House speaker and Senate Republican leader gave her a thick skin, Clarno said. She knows there are some Republicans parsing her every move because of how she got the job.
Richardson was Oregon’s lone Republican statewide officeholder when he died from brain cancer Feb. 26. Brown was required by state law to choose a Republican to fill out the rest of Richardson’s term, which runs through January 2021.
In late March, Brown chose Clarno, 83. She was sworn in March 31 at her home in Redmond. At the time, her appointment was widely hailed in Salem.
“We are fortunate once again to benefit from her vast experience and common sense,” House Minority Leader Carl Wilson, R-Grants Pass, said immediately after Clarno’s appointment..
Then came her second day on the job.
Clarno asked for the resignations of three top executives in the Secretary of State’s Office, a move that alarmed some Republicans. Deputy State Secretary Leslie Cummings, Government Affairs Director Steve Elzinga and Chief of Staff Deb Royal were out, effective immediately.
Clarno’s choices of former Republican Rep. Richard Vial of Washington County as her deputy secretary of state and Republican Senate senior policy analyst Andrea Chiapella as her legislative director, have cooled some Republican concerns.
Wilson remains a supporter and said Clarno will ultimately be judged by her actions in office.
“I think the quickest way for Secretary Clarno to show independence is to continue to engage in the types and number of audits that her predecessor did,” Wilson said. “Secretary Richardson’s effort to find wasteful government spending earned the respect and admiration of Oregonians everywhere.”
But some still have doubts. Sen. Brian Boquist, R-Dallas, who expressed skepticism of Clarno’s independence from Brown right after her appointment, says he hasn’t changed his mind.
“No more impressed today than then,” Boquist said Friday. “Rich Vial came to talk to me, but I see no independence yet. Nor do I see some key audits or actions.”
Asked what Clarno could do to satisfy his concerns, Boquist said that likely was impossible.
“I do not think Secretary Clarno can do anything to shore up her independence at the moment — no suggestions,” Boquist said.
Clarno said she had talked to Brown once since her appointment. As for negative comments, they were not unexpected.
“I think I have a wonderful staff,” Clarno said.
A second controversy came soon.
Kim Sordyl, Richardson’s appointee to a nonvoting position on the Oregon Board of Education, resigned. Sordyl criticized the dismissal of Richardson’s executive team in her resignation letter to Clarno.
“Your actions are not only disappointing, but they demonstrate your own lack of understanding of the value that (Richardson) and his team brought us,” Sordyl wrote.
A vocal critic of the Portland Public Schools, Sordyl used her position on the state board to aggressively question Department of Education policies and administrators. The department reports to Brown, who is also the official superintendent of public schools.
Democrats in the Legislature tried unsuccessfully in 2018 to have her removed as Richardson’s appointee.
Clarno chose Rep. Cheri Helt, R-Bend, to replace Sordyl.
“Cheri has been on the Bend-La Pine School Board and done a very good job there,” Clarno said. “I am very impressed with her abilities.”
Helt’s appointment by Clarno led to concerns that Democrats had maneuvered to replace the openly combative Sordyl with the more collegial Helt.
Sordyl said last week she wishes Helt well in the position but urged her to challenge the status quo.
“Cheri needs to be the watchdog, question the board and administrators, check on follow-through, and always put students first,” Sordyl said. “The Oregon Department of Education is dysfunctional and the board is sleepy.”
Sordyl said all Helt needs to do is compare how things work at the state board with her experience as a Bend-La Pine board member.
“She will quickly see that this board and organization are failing on the most basic duties,” Sordyl said.
Helt said she would not be actively involved in board matters until the Legislature adjourns in late June. Helt said she planned on being a voice for one group in particular.
“I will put students first,” she said.
Clarno said Helt’s appointment is also part of her general goal to add more voices in state government from beyond politically dominant Portland and the Willamette Valley.
“One of the things that really bothers me is that people east of the Cascades, capable people, are often overlooked for appointments,” she said.
Clarno said a key area where she will be a voice for rural Oregon is on the State Land Board. The board is made up of the governor, the treasurer and the secretary of state.
“The State Land Board hasn’t had anyone from east of the Cascades for a long time,” Clarno said. “Even though I may not be in the majority, to have a voice on that board is very important to folks from my area.”
Clarno says she works in Salem during the week but goes back to Redmond most weekends.
“My great-grandson, who we are raising, looks forward to me coming home,” she said. “We’re having his birthday party this weekend. He’s going to be 12.”
Clarno is looking for a semi-permanent place to live in Salem, checking out apartments during her lunch breaks. She’s only looking to rent.
“With this short term, I wouldn’t want to buy anything,” Clarno said.
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