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Blind protesters snub talks on agency post

Critics of state Blind Commission say request is diversion


by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT - Art Stevenson leads a demonstration outside the Oregon Commission for the Blind headquarters to protest the hiring of a sighted executive director over a qualified blind candidate.About two dozen blind activists picketed the Oregon Commission for the Blind headquarters Tuesday to protest the hiring of an inside candidate to lead the troubled agency, snubbing an offer by the new director to come inside and talk it over.

Protesters, led by Art Stevenson and other members of the National Federation of the Blind in Oregon, are angry that the commission board chose Dacia Johnson instead of outsider Joe Cordova, who is blind and, critics contend, better qualified for the top position.

To head off the protest, Johnson hired a facilitator, who is blind, and invited the protesters to share their concerns, but nobody went inside.

“We believe this was to divert attention away from the protest,” said protester Randy Hauth.

“Who we want dialogue with is the commission board, not Dacia Johnson,” Stevenson said.

Instead, protesters marched outside the state agency’s Southeast Portland headquarters with signs reading “Time to Clean House, not Hire in House,” “We want Joe,” and “Blind Abuse.”

Some activists had promised a bigger demonstration, which failed to materialize.

It could be that blind people are apathetic, uninformed or intimidated about criticizing the agency that provides them with rehabilitation and job-training services, said Tina Hansen of the National Federation of the Blind in Oregon.

Johnson said her invitation to a dialogue with critics remains open-ended.

The agency has been damaged by a series of state audits criticizing its financial and personnel management. There’s also been an ongoing struggle between the agency’s staff and board and a small but feisty group of blind vendors who have government-granted concessions to stock vending machines in public buildings, including Stevenson and Hauth.

That conflict has gone on for years and has been “cancerous” for the agency, says Steve Hanamura, the blind facilitator hired by Johnson.

When nobody came inside, Hanamura walked outside to listen to the protesters.

Hanamura sees the benefits of having a qualified blind person at the helm of the agency, though he said outsiders don’t really know the personnel issues that prompted the board’s decision.

Hauth reasoned that Cordova made it to the final four so his background was vetted.

One of Johnson’s first tasks is meeting with lawmakers in Salem who are reviewing the agency’s 2013-15 budget.

Gov. John Kitzhaber proposed eliminating the equivalent of 4.5 full-time positions, or 10 percent of the agency’s staffing, Johnson said.

Some lawmakers are concerned that the state could leverage an additional $1.9 million in federal matching funds if the state would provide an additional $470,000.

“But the governor had tough choices to make,” said Johnson, who works under Kitzhaber.

Hanamura supported protesters’ right to make their voices heard, but said the continuing conflict doesn’t help the agency’s cause in Salem.

“You keep doing that, they’re going to piss off the governor’s office and they’re going to shut this place down,” he said.