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Kulongoski replaces Dept. of Human Services director

In a surprise move, the governor puts his efficiency expert in charge, saying new leadership is needed in tough economic times.



SALEM -- Without warning, Gov. Ted Kulongoski replaced the Department of Human Services director Thursday, saying Oregon's largest agency needs a different kind of leader to deal with its strained budget and growing caseload.

Gary Weeks, who has spearheaded Kulongoski's government efficiency efforts, takes over the welfare agency immediately. He will oversee about 9,000 employees serving more than 1 million children, the elderly and people with disabilities.

Weeks, a longtime state manager who has run the Department of Administrative Services for the past year, headed the human services agency from 1995-01.

He replaces Jean Thorne, who led the agency for 14 months and is the former head of the public health insurance program. Kulongoski reassigned Thorne to be the top administrator at the Public Employee Benefits Board, which manages state employee health care plans.

Kulongoski emphasized the importance of managing the agency's $9.3 billion budget. Citing Weeks' 30 years of experience in state government, including his role in charge of human services, Kulongoski said, "Gary is clearly the best choice for this key assignment."

The agency's immediate challenge is finding ways to cover the most important services after the Feb. 3 defeat of Measure 30, a temporary income tax increase. The agency is expected to explain how it intends to cover its caseload within its current resources.

The governor's switch surprised some legislators, lobbyists and client representatives.

"I'm flabbergasted," said Ellen Pinney, executive director of the Oregon Health Action Campaign, a coalition of consumer groups lobbying for broader health care access for low-income people.

Pinney praised Thorne for her "inspirational and well-reasoned" approach and her sensitivity to clients and state workers.

Weeks, 57, said he would work with legislators and advocates for services "to make the best of " the difficult budget situation. "For me personally, it is a high priority" to work with children, senior citizens and people with disabilities, he said.

In addition to running human services, Weeks will continue to oversee accountability efforts in state government, Kulongoski said.

In his 14 months as administrative services director, Weeks "has spearheaded innovative ideas to make government more efficient," Kulongoski said, and that work "remains high on my agenda."

Cindy Becker, assistant director of Administrative Services, said those reform efforts include centralizing the state data network and consolidating the motor pool.

Weeks and Thorne each make about $123,800 a year. It's unclear what Thorne's salary will be on the benefits board.

Becker said she will move to Human Services with Weeks but that her position has not been defined.

Theresa McHugh, deputy director, will be acting director of administrative services.

Thorne, 49, said she feels good about where she has left the human services agency but did not hide her disappointment.

"I can see how bad things are going to be" with the cuts in services, she said, "and I would rather be there to guide it, but the governor felt the need for a change."

Thorne said she is looking forward to running the benefits board, where she can put her knowledge of health coverage and experience with insurance companies to work. In addition to directing human services, Thorne ran the state's medical assistance program from 1987 to 1995 during its transition to the Oregon Health Plan.

The benefits board, an arm of administrative services that has not had a fulltime administrator for several months, does not handle retirement benefits.

Reaction from legislators was mixed.

"We had no idea this was coming and have no explanation for it," said Rep. Jeff Kruse, R-Roseburg, chairman of the House Health and Human Services Committee during last year's legislative session.

"What perplexes me is that with all the other changes and readjustment at DHS, this is a strange time to be changing directors," Kruse said.

Another key legislator in health policy, Sen. Ben Westlund, R-Bend, called Kulongoski's move a good one that "will help move the department forward."

Westlund said he applauded the move "not because I have any ill feelings toward Jean Thorne -- we always had a very good relationship -- but I've known Gary Weeks ever since I've been in the legislative process and have the utmost respect for his work."

Don Colburn of The Oregonian staff contributed to this report. Dan Hortsch: 503-221-8223,  danhortsch@news.oregonian.com