Oregon Secretary of State Shemia Fagan went on a hiring spree when she took office earlier this year, adding an in-house lawyer and other executive office employees beyond what recent secretaries had.
Fagan was only able to hire some of the staffers on a temporary basis because she opted not to seek spending authority from the Legislature to add the jobs. She’s paying the employees with money that accumulated last year when the agency froze hiring and delayed some projects out of concern the pandemic would cut into state revenues. Now, lawmakers are poised to sign off on only about half of the staffing boost Fagan requested.
On Thursday afternoon, a Ways and Means subcommittee voted 7-1 to support a $97.5 million budget for the Secretary of State’s Office that would authorize the hiring or continued employment of five staffers at a cost of $1.4 million, rather than the 10 employees sought by Fagan, according to legislative documents. Senate Bill 5538 now goes to the full Ways and Means committee, which will vote whether to send it to the full Senate.
The three co-chairs of the Ways and Means committee already decided not to authorize Fagan to continue employing an in-house lawyer, which Deputy Legislative Fiscal Officer Paul Siebert said was reflected in the budget plan. Earlier this year, Fagan hired a lawyer with expertise in constitutional law at an annual salary of $165,936 to help her win a court fight with legislative leaders over redistricting deadlines, data sets and powers to redraw legislative districts, The Oregonian reported. Legislative leaders, not Fagan, prevailed.
In March, a spokesperson for Fagan said the secretary of state and her advisers were still deciding what issues lawyer P.K. Runkles-Pearson would work on beyond redistricting. Fagan’s administration proposed in a subsequent budget request that the general counsel would draft bills and amendments and develop and implement a “civic engagement strategic plan to raise level of knowledge regarding the secretary of state’s office and state government to the public.”
A budget document outlining the jobs lawmakers are likely to support also does not specifically list the temporary redistricting manager Fagan already hired, Kathy Wai, although it calls for a temporary legislative analyst.
In response to questions about how the Secretary of State’s Office will handle jobs the Legislature chooses not to authorize in the 2021-2023 budget, Chief of Staff Emily McLain wrote in an email that “the agency will make final personnel decisions after a final budget is approved and signed by the governor.”
The state Supreme Court unanimously sided with lawmakers in April, affirming the Legislature — not the secretary of state — has the right to redraw the boundaries of the state’s 90 state House and Senate districts. The court gave the Legislature additional time to complete the job, due to census data delays.
Fagan wants to significantly boost the secretary of state’s public relations team. Previous secretaries of state typically had one public information officer to answer questions from reporters. Fagan has already hired an additional two public affairs employees and is seeking spending authorization to continue their jobs plus add one more. Carla Axtman, a blogger, photographer and communications consultant who worked on Fagan’s 2020 campaign, is not listed on the secretary of state’s website as an employee. However, the agency has listed her as a contact for reporters and Axtman describes herself on the website LinkedIn as “Director of Communications at Oregon Secretary of State, Guardian of Democracy.”
Nikki Fisher has also been working as Fagan’s community outreach and engagement director since February, according to her resume on LinkedIn. Fisher previously worked on Gov. Kate Brown’s public relations team and simultaneously did volunteer political work for the governor, The Oregonian has reported. According to budget documents, lawmakers are considering authorizing Fisher’s job.
Two other new jobs that budget writers appear to support are a tribal liaison and diversity, equity and inclusion director and a senior adviser and strategic projects director. Fagan has already hired Molly Woon, previously the deputy director of the Democratic Party of Oregon, to serve as senior adviser and strategic projects director.
Lawmakers are also considering adding an executive assistant for the deputy secretary of state.
In an April budget hearing, Fagan said she urgently needed to add the executive office employees in order to support and retain employees in divisions such as elections. She pointed to the departure of former Elections Director Stephen Trout, which a news report at the time connected to Trout’s frustration that then-Secretary of State Bev Clarno paused the bidding process to replace the state’s outdated voter registration computer system and the Legislature’s decision not to greenlight spending of $5.7 million in federal coronavirus relief.
“We had a serious urgency around bringing folks on immediately,” Fagan said. “If you will recall that two days before I got elected to secretary of state, former elections director Steve Trout wrote a memo to (the secretary of state candidates) essentially saying that due to lack of support in the executive office, he didn’t believe that he nor anyone else could be successful …”
“We were very concerned about the possibility of losing other experienced staff due to the fact that they simply didn’t have that support from the executive office,” Fagan said. She said Trout mentioned the Elections Division needed help answering questions from the public around elections and Clarno, the previous secretary of state, asked lawmakers to authorize a public affairs employee to work specifically in the division. Fagan said she would prefer to have all the public affairs employees be “utility players in the executive office …”
Fagan deferred specific questions about how she was able to hire employees without legislative budget authorization to Jerry Morgan, director of the agency’s business services, and he filled in lawmakers on the secretary of state’s use of money accumulated from hiring freezes and project delays. However, Fagan, a lawyer who previously served as a state senator and representative, encouraged lawmakers to ask questions.
“Our office is an open book,” she said.
Rep. Cedric Hayden, a Republican from Fall Creek who is on the Ways and Means Subcommittee on General Government, was the lone “no” vote on the secretary of state’s budget plan Thursday. He said it appears the secretary of state forged ahead with the hires on the premise that “it’s better to be forgiven than to ask permission on some of these hires.” Hayden, who said he otherwise generally supports the secretary of state’s budget, said he previously inquired if Fagan’s administration told the employees their jobs were temporary pending legislative authorization. Hayden said he never received a clear response.