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  • 27 Aug 2014

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Commission for the Blind selects insider to lead troubled agency

The Oregon Commission for the Blind board voted Saturday to promote the embattled state agency’s second-in-command Dacia Johnson as new executive director.

Johnson, the Portland-based agency’s director of rehabilitative services, will replace Linda Mock, who retired as of Jan. 30. Johnson will assume the top management job as the agency makes its biennial plea to the Legislature for funding.

The board had publicly named four finalists, but Board member Carla McQuillan says in the end it was clear the decision was down to two candidates: Johnson, the lone insider candidate, and Joe Cordova, administrator of the division of vocational rehabilitation for the Hawaii Department of Human Services.

Many staff of the agency supported Johnson, based on public testimony offered Saturday, while many blind people rallied around Cordova, who is blind.

“There was a clear division between the agency staff and the consumers, the people who were actually receiving services,” McQuillan says.

The board voted 5 to 2 to hire Johnson instead of Cordova. The lone dissenters were McQuillan and Patricia Kepler, representatives of Oregon’s two leading blind advocacy groups. McQuillan is president of the National Federation of the Blind in Oregon and Kepler is a leader of the Oregon Council for the Blind.

Board Chairwoman Jodi Roth could not be reached for comment Saturday.

The Oregon Commission for the Blind, which relies mostly on federal and state funding to provide job training opportunities and other benefits for thousands of blind people across the state, has been buffeted by a series of state audits that uncovered a pattern of financial mismanagement.

Some argued that an insider like Johnson understood the agency’s problems and was best-positioned to solve them, McQuillan says. Others wanted an outsider who could bring a fresh perspective.

In one stakeholder survey done after the four finalists were announced, most ranked Cordova as highly qualified, far more than the other three candidates scored, McQuillan says.

State law bars the board from considering blindness as a criteria in the hiring. That protects blind people from discrimination but also prevents the use of blindness for affirmative action purposes.

McQuillan raised the spectre of Washington, D.C.'s Gallaudet University, where deaf students shut down the campus in 1988 protests when a hearing person was picked over a deaf candidate for university president.

“I am concerned for the ability of the agency to survive what I believe is going to occur when the blindness community speaks their mind about what just occurred,” McQuillan says.

“Blind people have been marginalized for decades,” she says. “I don’t believe they’re going to take this lightly.”