BY PAUL MONIES
Scores of state employees have left agencies after new leaders took office earlier this year, saving the state some money but at the cost of experience and knowledge in many specialized jobs.
Leading the way is the state Education Department, which has seen 61 employees leave since state schools Superintendent Janet Barresi took over in January.
The Oklahoman examined payroll records at six statewide elected agencies for the first six months of 2009, 2010 and 2011. The governor and lieutenant governor offices were excluded because they have smaller staffs.
Among the findings:
• The average turnover rate for state employees has been about 13 percent. Three of the six agencies had double those turnover rates in the first half of 2011.
• A combination of voluntary buyouts, employee transfers, retirements and resignations meant the number of employees at the Education Department fell to 269 at the end of June, down from 341 in January. Fourteen people left in the first part of 2010, while 11 employees left in the first half of 2009 under longtime state schools Superintendent Sandy Garrett, a Democrat.
• A quarter of the staff, or 32 people, at the Insurance Department left in the first six months of 2011. That compared with 12 employees in the same period of 2010 and 10 employees in 2009. The agency has 113 employees.
• More than one-fourth of the staff at the attorney general’s office left in the first part of this year. The agency has 148 employees. In the first part of 2010, 6 people left, while 11 people left in the same time period in 2009.
Brett Sharp, a political science professor at the University of Central Oklahoma, said employee turnover is a normal part of any agency. It typically spikes a little when new leaders take over.
“We have way too many elected leaders in the executive branch,” Sharp said. “That makes Oklahoma different from most other states. We have a weak-governor (system). Part of that is having all these elected executives. They have their own agendas, and they bring in their own people. The people that are there may want to leave, especially if someone is coming in who is not the same political persuasion.”
There also are costs associated with training new people on the job or leaving positions open for extended periods. In its latest compensation report, the Office of Personnel Management estimates employee turnover costs the state about $82 million annually.
“One of our biggest challenges is maintaining senior management positions,” said State Auditor and Inspector Gary Jones. “They’re often lured away by other agencies with offers of higher salaries. It’s also difficult to recruit experienced auditors.
“Most of our new hires are recent college graduates with no field experience, so additional training is necessary to prepare them for the job.”
Phillip Applegate retired from the Education Department in February.
Applegate worked there from 1995 to 2005 and again from 2008 to 2011. His last job was as director of policy research. Applegate, 54, now works at the University of Tulsa.
Applegate said communication was scarce at the department between last November’s elections and January, when Barresi took office.
“There was very little effort to reach out to the people who had 25, 30, 35 or 40 years of experience,” Applegate said.
“It was disheartening, especially when we heard statements that really were more politically driven than educationally driven. I think there was a real concern that there was no desire to keep any of us around. She knew what she wanted to do, and we were simply in the way.”
Damon Gardenhire, Barresi’s communications director, said the turmoil involving the state Education Board earlier this year ended any hopes for an orderly transition.
After a contentious first meeting with Barresi leading the board, the GOP-controlled Legislature passed a law stripping the board of some oversight powers at the Education Department.
“We spent about four months with the superintendent not being able to act as the chief executive of the agency and being micromanaged by a group of unelected political appointees,” Gardenhire said. “That significantly affected morale in the agency, and we are in the process of rebuilding morale.”
Gardenhire said the Education Department was overstaffed in many areas. Barresi has been able to cut payroll by $2.5 million in the first six months, he said.
More than 20 longtime employees took buyouts in January or February.
Among the payroll savings were cutting the number of employees in the print shop to one from seven. The department also streamlined some financial services jobs and communications jobs, Gardenhire said.
As part of a statewide technology consolidation effort, the Education Department shifted some information technology employees to the Office of State Finance.
At the Labor Department, 10 of the 89 employees are new. That’s close to the turnover numbers for the first six months of the previous two years under former Commissioner Lloyd Fields, a Democrat.
Labor Commissioner Mark Costello, a Republican who defeated Fields, said new administrative staff took a pay cut when they started.
He also decided not to replace a deputy commissioner and an attorney, both of whom made salaries of more than $70,000.
“Personally, I reduced my salary by 15 percent in order to meet the bottom line.”
The Oklahoman looked at employment and agency turnover at six agencies headed by new officials. Here’s how they stacked up:
• Elected official: Janet Barresi
• Number of employees, January: 341
• Number of employees, June: 269
• Turnover, first half 2011: 61
• Turnover, first half 2010: 14
• Turnover, first half 2009: 11
• Elected official: Scott Pruitt
• Number of employees, January: 143
• Number of employees, June: 148
• Turnover, first half 2011: 40
• Turnover, first half 2010: 6
• Turnover, first half 2009: 11
• Elected official: John Doak
• Number of employees, January: 117
• Number of employees, June: 113
• Turnover, first half 2011: 32
• Turnover, first half 2010: 12
• Turnover, first half 2009: 10
State auditor, inspector
• Elected official: Gary Jones
• Number of employees, January: 114
• Number of employees, June: 118
• Turnover, first half 2011: 11
• Turnover, first half 2010: 11
• Turnover, first half 2009: 9
• Elected official: Mark Costello
• Number of employees, January: 91
• Number of employees, June: 89
• Turnover, first half 2011: 10
• Turnover, first half 2010: 6
• Turnover, first half 2009: 9
• Elected official: Ken Miller
• Number of employees, January: 56
• Number of employees, June: 55
• Turnover, first half 2011: 3
• Turnover, first half 2010: 1
• Turnover, first half 2009: 0
SOURCE: THE OKLAHOMAN ANALYSIS OF STATE PAYROLL DATA
From today’s story, which is generating a few comments online.
- I’ve also posted a few related letters to Gov. Mary Fallin at the bottom. One is from the District Attorneys Council. The other is from The Sentencing Project.
BY PAUL MONIES
Published: August 18, 2011
The Pardon and Parole Board recommended Wednesday a convicted drug dealer from Kingfisher who is serving life without parole should have his sentence commuted to 42 years.
The recommendation for Larry E. Yarbrough, 61, now goes to Gov. Mary Fallin. Yarbrough has been in prison since 1997. The board recommended a commuted sentence for Yarbrough in 2002, but then-Gov. Frank Keating denied the request.
The five-member board issued a 3-2 split decision at a hearing room packed with Yarbrough’s family members and supporters at Hillside Community Corrections Center in Oklahoma City.
Two board members voted not to commute the sentence. Two others recommended Yarbrough’s sentence be commuted to time served. One member said the sentence should be commuted to 42 years. If Fallin approves the board’s recommendation, Yarbrough could be eligible for parole next year.
Yarbrough, a former restaurant owner, was sentenced to life without parole in 1997 on a cocaine trafficking charge. Previously, he served time in prison in the early 1980s on convictions for LSD and marijuana distribution. Yarbrough also received probation for a felony conviction of receiving stolen property.
State law requires a life-without-parole sentence for drug-trafficking charges after prior convictions for two or more felonies.
In a videoconferencing appearance before the board, Yarbrough said he’s been a model prisoner who counseled young men entering prison. He said he planned to move to California with family if he ever got released from prison.
“I have turned my life around and bettered myself,” said Yarbrough, who is at the Davis Correctional Facility in Holdenville. “I have taken every drug program they have.”
Yarbrough’s family and supporters said his sentence was too harsh.
“He’s served his time already, and he just needs to be out,” said Yarbrough’s niece, Rhonda Campbell, of Edmond. “I know my uncle is all about the law, and he does respect the people, but this was too much for that type of felony. We’re just going to keep praying and keep positive.”
Aaron Cooper, a spokesman for Fallin, said the governor would have no comment until she reviews the board’s recommendation for Yarbrough.
Mike Fields, the district attorney for a five-county area including Kingfisher County, spoke before the board Wednesday morning. Fields asked them not to commute Yarbrough’s sentence. He cited Yarbrough’s criminal history and the board’s power to consider the commutation of life-without-parole sentences. Fields said the matter should be left to the Legislature.
“In our criminal justice system, there’s only one sentence that means exactly what it says, and that’s life without parole,” Fields said in a phone interview. “I think the public, victims’ families and law enforcement officers should have assurance that life without parole truly means life without parole. They can’t have that assurance if the Pardon and Parole Board makes it a routine practice of pulling out life-without-parole inmates and recommending commutation.”
Among those supporting Yarbrough was Dennis Will, of Hennessey, a former juror in Yarbrough’s 1997 conviction for cocaine distribution. Will provided a letter to the board detailing his concerns with the jury deliberations.
“After I learned he was being given life without parole, I was upset about it,” Will said after the hearing. “I lost it, because we were not told before we voted.”
Debra K. Hampton, Yarbrough’s attorney, said she has talked to two other members of the jury who shared Will’s concerns. The other jurors did not want to reveal their identities out of fear of retaliation, she said.
Sen. Connie Johnson, D-Oklahoma City, said Yarbrough’s case is a “poster child” for extreme sentencing guidelines for drug charges. She said it costs the state an estimated $23,000 a year to house an inmate.
“Taxpayer dollars are being squandered on sentences for nonviolent crimes,” Johnson said.
Johnson said she plans to reintroduce legislation next year to stop life-without-parole sentences for nonviolent drug crimes. Her prior bills on the matter did not make it out of committee.
A recent draft report by the American Law Institute noted the severity of life-without-parole sentences. The Washington-based organization, made up of 4,000 lawyers, judges and law professors, publishes model statutes and restatements of law.
“Short of the death penalty, in nearly every American jurisdiction in the early 21st century, a life term of imprisonment without the possibility of release is now the most severe punishment authorized in the criminal code,” the institute said its “Model Penal Code: Sentencing” report released earlier this year.