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Originally published March 24, 2011 at 4:41 p.m., updated March 24, 2011 at 4:35 p.m.
TOPEKA The state's top Senate Democrat said today he will oppose the confirmation of Rob Siedlecki as secretary of the Kansas Department of Social and Rehabilitation Services.
Sen. Anthony Hensley, D-Topeka, said he will fight Siedlecki staying as chief of the state welfare agency because of concerns raised by an email and subsequent letter discussing comments Siedlecki allegedly made when meeting with the board of directors of the Association of Community Mental Health Centers of Kansas.
"I've got real concerns about this appointment and have concluded that I'm going to oppose the appointment of Secretary Siedlecki, as well I know there will be other senators who will be doing the same," Hensley said at a Thursday morning press conference.
The email, now in the hands of various senators and Statehouse news reporters, was from a member of the mental health center's board. The board member's name was blacked out by Hensley before he shared it with reporters. So was the name of the senator who received it. But the email was sent to Sen. Ruth Teichman, a Stafford Republican, from Dwight Young, executive director of the Center for Counseling and Consultation in Great Bend.
According to Young, Siedlecki told the board members he intended to use SRS funds for initiatives he favored, including ones that involve "faith-based" organizations, irrespective of legislative directions once he saw the agency's fiscal 2012 budget finalized.
"I was shocked to hear that all the work that the Legislature was doing to allocate funding would be ignored by another branch of government because to my knowledge, over my 41 years in mental health this has never happened before," Young wrote in the email, asking if the SRS secretary could unilaterally shift funding and whether the Senate would confirm an official who had stated those intentions.
Siedlecki's confirmation was one of several items discussed with reporters as part of a regular end-of-week news conference held by Hensley and House Democratic Leader Paul Davis of Lawrence.
His confirmation hearing before the Senate Ways and Means Committee began Wednesday but was continued until early next week after unusually tough questioning. Confirmation hearings for a governor's nominee typically excite little or no opposition.
The Brownback administration has proposed significant cuts in state funding for the mental health centers for the fiscal year that begins July 1. The Senate budget committee has recommended restoring some of those cuts.
Siedlecki was hired by Gov. Sam Brownback from the Florida Department of Health.
Siedlecki wasn't available for comment.
But Bill Miskell, an SRS spokesman, said it was difficult for the agency to respond to Young's assertions because it was too soon in the budget process.
“In terms of funding for specific initiatives that are of interest to the secretary and to the administration, nothing has occurred thus far,” Miskell said. “We don’t know when that’s going to be, we don’t know what those costs would be or how they would be funded. But as time goes on and we get a more definitive idea of what our budget is going to be, a number of other decisions will be made.”
Brownback spokesperson Sherriene Jones-Sontag said Siedlecki's has the administration's full confidence.
“Secretary Siedlecki is a highly qualified public servant who is already off to a great start implementing proven approaches to reducing childhood poverty and improving the delivery of vital social services,” she said.
"Fear and intimidation"
Hensley also cited a letter — sent subsequent to Young's email — to Ways and Means Chair Sen. Carolyn McGinn, R-Wichita, from Mike Hammond, executive director of the Association of Community Mental Health Centers of Kansas.
Hammond told McGinn that, "I believe my member misinterpreted the comments by the Secretary. I would like you to know that the views of this member (Young) are not the views of this Association or myself. The Secretary has made clear to this Association that he fully intends to honor Legislative intent for funding of existing programs. I have no reason to believe otherwise."
But Hensley said Hammond had been coerced by Siedlecki into writing the letter.
"Through fear and intimidation he was able to secure a letter of support from Mike Hammond," Hensley said.
Asked how he knew Hammond had been coerced, Hensley said: "I know this from members of the Senate Ways and Means Committee. They were told by people who were basically in the room."
Hammond told KHI News Service that he was asked to write the letter by Siedlecki aide Gary Haulmark but that he had not been coerced.
“I think Dwight (Young) misinterpreted what the secretary said,” Hammond said. “What the secretary said was that once he knows what his budget is going to be, he’ll sit down with stakeholders and go over whatever it is that has to be done. I don’t think he’s in a position to know what that is yet.”
But the underlying concerns in Young’s email, Hammond said, were not unique among mental health advocates.
“There is a lot anxiety among stakeholders as to what’s going to happen with the budget,” he said. “There’s a lot of uncertainty out there.”
Hensley said the Ways and Means Committee had attached a proviso to the agency's budget legislation directing the secretary to spend the money as directed by the Legislature.
"They took the important step of putting in a proviso to make sure that Siedlecki does not do what he said he was going to do at that meeting," Hensley said.
Qualifications and hirings
Hensley also said he was concerned Siedlecki's qualifications for the job and about people he has hired since he came to SRS.
The Florida Department of Health doesn't oversee programs similar to some of the major programs overseen by SRS, including services for the developmentally disabled.
The Brownback administration has proposed closing the Kansas Neurological Institute in Topeka, a state hospital for the severely developmentally disabled. That move is strongly opposed by Topeka legislators and some families of the facility's residents.
Siedlecki hired Bob Corkins, a conservative activist and former education commissioner, to serve as the agency's chief legal counsel for a salary of $85,000.
"I would also question — as there were questions in the committee — about the salaries being paid in the department," Hensley said, "and the creation of new positions that really are unnecessary. Don Jordan (Siedlecki's predecessor) got along quite well without many of these positions."
In the email, Young said Siedlecki told the mental health centers' board that he was particularly interested in funding "faith-based" initiatives, something Siedlecki worked on while at the U.S Department of Health and Human Services during the administration of President George W. Bush.
He and Brownback are religious conservatives and share an interest in faith-based social service programs. Siedlecki in recent interviews with KHI News Service described in some detail his interest in faith-based programs.
Brownback while still in the U.S. Senate authored a book called "From Power to Purpose, a Remarkable Journey of Faith and Compassion." The book, published in 2007, describes the shaping of Brownback's religious and political convictions. It also describes his interest in transforming American culture and the importance of government programs such as Marriage Development Accounts, which he said promote marriage. Marriage, Brownback wrote, is the best solution to the problems of poverty.
Siedlecki keeps a copy of Brownback's book prominently displayed on a shelf in his SRS office.
Soon after he was hired, Siedlecki told the House Appropriations Committee he was looking for ways to fund programs promoting healthy marriage and adoption. He said the healthy marriage program would be a major initiative for SRS.
Last month, the Kansas Healthy Marriage Institute, which is affiliated with Catholic Charities in Wichita, asked the governor to form a commission to develop recommendations for ways state government could promote "healthy marriage."
Young told KHI News Service his intention in sending the email to Teichman wasn't to derail Siedlecki's confirmation.
“All I’m saying is that I don’t think he has the latitude on the budget that he thinks he has,” Young said.
He also talked about his interpretation of Siedlecki's remarks to the mental health centers' board.
“He did not say it directly. He kept saying he had these new initiatives and that he wanted to work with faith-based agencies,” Young said. “But what his comments suggested to me was that these initiatives were going to be part of the budget and that the mental-health part of the budget was going to be open to question for some other use.”