In extraordinary actions this week, the General Assembly has slashed the number of appointees available to incoming governor Roy Cooper.
By Rose Hoban
Even as the General Assembly makes moves to limit the power of Governor-elect Roy Cooper to fill the executive branch with his appointees, the transition of power in departments such as Health and Human Services is moving ahead.
On Thursday evening, the House of Representatives green-lighted a bill that would reduce the number of appointees available to Cooper to only 300 people. That’s down from the 1,500 given to outgoing Gov. Pat McCrory in 2013 or even the 500-some political appointees former Gov. Bev Perdue had at her disposal.
According to interviews with current and former officials, the lower number could seriously hamper Cooper’s ability to fill the roles he needs in dozens of departments, departmental divisions and agencies, ranging from the Administrative Office of the Courts to the Wildlife Resources Commission.
One of the biggest departments of all is Health and Human Services, with about 17,000 employees and a budget of more than $18 billion per year. The department has 14 divisions.
Only the Department of Public Safety has more employees.
In 2013, the legislature gave McCrory the power to make 388 appointees for DHHS, more than the entire tally being given to Cooper.
By comparison Perdue had only 79 at-will appointments to DHHS, which had the largest number of employees converted from being subject to the State Personnel Act to being exempt, serving at the pleasure of the governor.
Making the trains run on time
Former HHS Secretary Al Delia likened the process of transitioning from one administration to another to a night shift nurse handing off to the day shift.
“First, you want to tell them the basics,” Delia said. “Things like, ‘These are the issues we’re concerned about.’ You hope you don’t miss anything.”
When Delia managed the transition from Perdue’s DHHS to McCrory’s he and his staff prepared briefings for the incoming staff.
“They should be able to put their hands on what they need in order to get up and running,” he said. “We put together a briefing book for the McCrory administration, a three-ring binder that’s a public document. I assume it’s on a shelf somewhere, they may never have looked at it, but we prepared it.”
He said all of the lower-level divisions will put together materials to provide to the incoming administration.
And as an incoming administration, you’re hoping that your predecessors are giving you the straight story, especially about operational issues such as running hospitals, providing social services, administering programs, and managing grants.
“You want an honest enough assessment of the operational issues as well as the policy priorities that the prior administration had,” he said. “You’re coming right into the long [legislative] session and you’ve got to know how to turn all that into a budget that the Governor submits to the legislature.”
He said the vast majority of the work in any department is operational, not necessarily political.
“It’s making the trains run on time. You’ve got to know the schedule, who the operators are. That’s a huge part of the information that the transition team needs to impart to the folks transitioning in.”
Wayne Goodwin was putting office materials into boxes as he talked to this reporter about the transition his department is making.
Goodwin, the outgoing state insurance commissioner, said his employees had prepared briefings for Mike Causey, who will be occupying his office in a few weeks.
A few days after the election, Goodwin said he called Causey and arranged a meeting.
“We had a two-hour meeting, we had my team preparing briefing books to provide a strong overview of issues that are on the radar,” Goodwin said. “We can’t provide confidential stuff until he’s sworn in, we provided as much as we could and his team picked [the briefing books] up about 10 days later.”
He said he was interested in having the transition be as seamless as possible. But he also said some of his top lieutenants were planning on leaving the department, possibly leaving a knowledge vacuum in a time when insurance markets are likely to be facing turmoil.
“There is tremendous value in retaining as many of the technical and subject matter experts as possible,” Goodwin said. “I do believe it could hurt consumers and agents and businesses regulated by the Department if there is no institutional knowledge or a drop in the subject matter expertise.”
He said that Causey’s appointees will no doubt develop that expertise over time, but there will be learning curve.
Causey did not respond to requests for comment.
Raleigh-based attorney Michael C. Byrne stood up during Thursday morning’s meeting of the committee on Rules, Calendar and Operations of the House to say that 300 at-will employees for Cooper is too little.
In a subsequent interview, Byrne, whose legal practice is handling personnel matters in state government, said he didn’t “have a political axe to grind.”
“I just think when you get down to it, what is the rationale to reducing it to 300 people,” Byrne asked. “That’s a political question that’s beyond my pay grade but it’s not good personnel policy.”
He pointed out that before the N.C. Human Resource Act was passed in 1965, incoming governors could eliminate anyone from the opposite party, no matter how low they were in the organizational chart, and that was bad policy, too.
“Having a stable civil service corps is a good idea, we still need to design bridges, have nurses take care of people in institutions,” he said. “They should not be subject to political whims.”
That’s why he believes the 1,500 positions given to McCrory was too many.
“The issue that should be everyone’s top concern is sound personnel administration and sound personnel administration is a situation where employees who provide recurring services can do their jobs,” he said. “On the other side of the coin, any administration needs a sufficient number of [at-will] employees to carry out their policies and they are entitled to expect that.”
Byrne told the Rules Committee that a “sweet spot” for the number of at-will employees should be in the 500-600 range.