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Uproar greets new blind commission executive

Many unhappy a blind person wasn't selected for post


by: TRIBUNE FILE PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT - Blind business owners who service vending machines at government buildings are often at odds with the Oregon Commission for the Blind staff and board. Some of the vendors preferred one of the blind candidates to be hired as new agency director. The Oregon Commission for the Blind board voted Saturday to hire the embattled state agency’s second-in-command Dacia Johnson as new executive director.

Johnson, the Portland-based agency’s director of rehabilitative services, replaces Linda Mock, who retired Jan. 30. Johnson assumes the post as the agency makes its biennial plea to the Legislature for funding and seeks to improve its financial management practices after a series of critical state audits.

In lieu of an interview, Johnson sent an email saying she is excited to lead the Commission for the Blind “at this time of organizational transformation.”

Her immediate priorities, she wrote, are securing renewed funding for the agency for 2013-15 and “establishing sustainable, permanent improvements to the agency business practices that can be verified through audit.”

The board voted 5 to 2 to select Johnson over runner-up Joe Cordova, administrator of the division of vocational rehabilitation for the Hawaii Department of Human Services.

The decision didn’t sit well with several blind people who receive services from the commission and Oregon’s two primary advocacy groups for blind people.

While some of the agency staff openly supported Johnson’s appointment, many blind people rallied behind Cordova, who is blind.

“There was a clear division between the agency staff and the consumers, the people who were actually receiving services,” said board member Carla McQuillan, who also is president of the National Federation of the Blind in Oregon. The other board vote for Cordova was cast by Patricia Kepler, a leader of the Oregon Council for the Blind.

Board Chairwoman Jodi Roth did not respond to interview requests. However, she sent a statement to stakeholders saying Johnson, the lone inside candidate among four finalists for the job, was best-positioned to be the change agent the organization needs now.

“Dacia’s experience with the commission and intimate knowledge of what’s working and what isn’t will allow her to hit the ground running,” Roth wrote.

Blind advocacy groups countered that an outside perspective was needed, and they argued Cordova was more experienced and qualified. Many said a qualified blind person would provide a valuable perspective and role model for an agency that serves the blind.

Vendor relationships

In a stakeholder survey done after the four finalists were announced, most ranked Cordova as highly qualified, far more than the other three candidates’ rankings, McQuillan said.

By statute, the board has the sole responsibility for hiring the agency director, said Duke Shepard, Gov. John Kitzhaber’s labor and human services adviser. State law bars the board from considering blindness as a criteria in the hiring, Shepard said. That protects blind people from discrimination but also prevents the use of blindness for affirmative action purposes.

McQuillan raised the specter 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 said.

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

The Oregon Commission for the Blind relies mostly on federal and state funding to provide job training, rehabilitation and other benefits for thousands of blind people across the state.

The agency has had rocky relations with the Legislature, in part because of a series of reports by the secretary of state’s audit division that documented a pattern of financial mismanagement.

There’s also been considerable friction in recent years between the Commission for the Blind staff and board and the blind vendors who provide food concession services at state, federal and other public buildings, under longstanding federal and state mandates.

Shepard said he’s closely following the agency, and met with individual board members after Mock’s resignation was announced.

“I think they’ve made progress on the issues raised in the audits,” he said. “The relationship with the vendors continues to be a challenge.”

Kitzhaber’s proposed 2013-15 budget for the agency provides $1.1 million from the general fund, $10.68 million in federal funds and $3.1 million from fees and other sources.

Though that amount can change before the 2013 legislative session ends, that’s less than the Legislature approved two years ago for the current biennium, when it granted $1.14 million from the general fund, $11.57 million in federal funds and $2.95 million from other sources.

Now Johnson must go before lawmakers to pitch for optimal agency funding, and convince them the agency is on a steady path to improvement.