KHI News Service

Kansas welfare chief stepping down

Rob Siedlecki will return to Florida; Jeff Kahrs will temporarily fill in

By Dave Ranney, Mike Shields | December 15, 2011

Rob Siedlecki, the embattled secretary of the Kansas Department of Social and Rehabilitation Services, is stepping down.

Siedlecki came to Kansas for the SRS job earlier this year, resigning his post as chief of staff for the Florida Department of Health. His last day at SRS will be Dec. 31.

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SRS Secretary Rob Siedlecki

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Officials in the administration of Gov. Sam Brownback said Siedlecki would return to Florida to be closer to family. His family has a transportation company based there and Siedlecki once ran unsuccessfully for a seat in the Florida Legislature.

"We wish him success in all his future endeavors," the governor said in a prepared statement, announcing Siedlecki's pending departure and publicly thanking him for his service.

In his short tenure at SRS, he became something of an administration lightning rod, implementing budget cuts that had not been explicitly approved or endorsed by the Legislature. For example, he drew ire from many lawmakers when he announced the agency would close several local SRS offices in order to save money.

He later agreed to keep several offices open after local communities protested and agreed to shoulder what previously had been state expenses, such as lease payments and utilities for the SRS buildings.

Siedlecki subsequently said he would try to include full state funding for the local offices in later agency budgets. But that came after several already were shut down.

His confirmation by the Kansas Senate was the only Brownback Cabinet appointment that faced opposition.

More recently, legislators have protested an administration plan to move some delinquency prevention and child care programs to SRS from the Juvenile Justice Authority and the Kansas Department of Health and Environment. The protests were driven in part by lack of confidence in Siedlecki's leadership of the agency and what some considered poor communication.

“That’s an experiment that didn’t work,” said Rep. Jim Ward, a Wichita Democrat, referring to Siedlecki’s tenure at SRS. “The Brownback administration is trying to do too much too fast with a flawed messenger. Mr. Siedlecki was not the person you’d want to have out front on these kinds of changes. He didn’t mesh well with Kansas.”

But Siedlecki said he would leave Kansas with fond memories.

"While I am returning to my home state of Florida, Kansas and Kansans will have special places in my heart," he said in a prepared statement. "Kansas hospitality is real."

Some legislators were surprised by the news.

"Wow. I’m speechless – and that doesn’t happen very often,” said Rep. Brenda Landwehr, a Wichita Republican. “This blows me away. I’m flabbergasted.”

Landwehr chairs the House Health and Human Services Committee and is on the Joint Committee for Health Policy Oversight. She said she’d come to believe that Siedlecki’s tenure was troubled but salvageable.

“I don’t like saying this, but he’s a New Yorker. He talks fast,” she said. “He had a hard time making that fit in Kansas, but I think his heart is in the right place. He really cares about kids.”

Administration sources said that Jeff Kahrs, Siedlecki's chief of staff, would fill in for Siedlecki until the governor announces an acting secretary. That announcement is expected to come before the 2012 legislative session begins in January, said Sherriene Jones-Sontag, chief spokesperson for Brownback.

Kahrs previously served as chief of staff for former Kansas Congressman Todd Tiahrt. He was on Tiahrt's staff for 15 years. He is an attorney and a 1993 graduate of Washburn Law School.

Siedlecki hired several former Florida officials to join him in top spots at SRS. It wasn't immediately clear on Thursday whether they would remain at the agency.

The administration had announced earlier that it would move several major programs from SRS to the Kansas Department on Aging, including oversight of the state hospitals and programs for the mentally ill. Also to be shifted to Aging are programs dealing with the disabled.