Administrator calls business protest a misunderstanding
Embattled leaders of the Oregon Commission for the Blind are getting back in the good graces of state auditors after a September audit ripped the agency for financial mismanagement. But relations have reached a boiling point between the social service agency and its most vocal clients: blind business owners who picketed its Southeast Portland offices Friday and called for the firing of agency Administrator Linda Mock. The September audit was the fifth since 1995 to slam the agency for sloppy business practices. Protesters cited the recent audit was one reason they think it’s time for Mock to leave the agency. But Gary Blackmer, director of the state Audits Division, said he met recently with Mock and members of her board and was pleased to see they are now taking the audit findings seriously. “They just committed to a positive and constructive response to all of our recommendations,” Blackmer said. “I believe we have their attention and commitment to resolve these matters, according to what they’ve told us.” Auditors, who work under Secretary of State Kate Brown, directed the agency’s volunteer board to respond directly to the audit, because of concerns that agency management has disregarded past audits. The board was expected to submit its formal response to auditors Wednesday, after a four-hour meeting Dec. 2 when it discussed the audit findings point by point. But just as Mock and the board won an apparent reprieve from state auditors, a feisty group of constituents is turning up the heat. Those are the 17 clients in the Blind Business Enterprise Program, who operate vending machines and other food services in public buildings, as guaranteed by the 1936 Randolph-Sheppard Act and a subsequent state law. Those laws also guarantee that a committee representing the blind business owners will be consulted on policies affecting their work. Randy Hauth, the group’s elected chairman, said he organized two recent protests after being snubbed twice by Commission for the Blind leaders. At the Dec. 2 board meeting, Hauth said he asked for a copy of a document circulated to board members on issues dealing with the Blind Business Enterprise Program, but was turned down. The agency gave him the document four days later. Mock said the document wasn’t completed until just before the board meeting and there were no extra copies. In hindsight, she conceded, “It would have made sense to have copies available for the audience.” Mock has noted that the agency serves about 1,500 blind people, and the Blind Business Enterprise clients constitute about 1 percent of her clients. But the program seems to be at the center of many of the agency’s controversies and problems pinpointed by the audit. ‘Breakdown in communication’ In light of the audit findings, the board set aside a special four-hour meeting on Nov. 18 to hash out issues with the blind business owners. There was consensus that better communication was needed, and that the agency should try to improve the income that blind business owners make from their vending machine routes and food service, Mock said. Hauth said the board members were sympathetic to the blind business owners, who often make little more than minimum wage. “Everyone said,‘We want to support you guys,’ ” Hauth said, describing it as a “Kumbaya” meeting that left everyone with good feelings. But then a planned powwow between agency administrators and Hauth blew up. Hauth, who wanted some support at the meeting, said Mock refused to let him invite a colleague to take notes and another blind businessman with expertise in training blind people. Mock said she wanted to limit the topics of the meeting. Hauth decided to boycott the meeting and formally call for Mock’s firing, starting with a solo protest outside the agency office, and then Friday’s larger demonstration. “It is clearly a breakdown in communication,” Mock said. “It was really unfortunate the approach that they decided to use.” In a related matter, Mock said she formally “dismissed” Art Reyes Friday from his job managing the Blind Business Enterprise program. Reyes had been put on paid administrative leave in August after auditors found questionable practices during the course of their investigation. “I think, ultimately, it is going to help improve the program,” Mock said of Reyes’ dismissal. Hauth isn’t satisfied. He’s now talking about planning a march from the Commission for the Blind office in Southeast Portland to the governor’s office in Salem.