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Politics and Government

The toughest position for Gov.-elect Jared Polis to fill is this one

Gov. John Hickenlooper has managed to end his term with the same state director of human services he appointed eight years ago, a rarity nationally

Jared Polis speaks to reporters on Tuesday, Dec. 4, 2018. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)
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Recommendations about who should run more than a dozen state agencies with thousands of employees and multi-million or billion-dollar budgets will hit the governor-elect’s desk this weekend.

A team of committees appointed by Jared Polis has sorted through hundreds of applications to pick the top candidates to manage everything from Colorado’s roads and bridges to its system of universities and community colleges. Their recommendations are due Saturday.

Several departments have the potential for major change, as a number of Gov. John Hickenlooper’s appointees already have left for new jobs or signaled they will leave at the end of his term.

Among the toughest positions to fill is executive director of the Colorado Department of Human Services, a behemoth that includes a multitude of divisions where any number of things can go wrong.

The department oversees two hospitals for people with mental illness, four nursing homes, 40 group homes for people with disabilities, 10 youth corrections centers, the state’s food assistance program, child support and the foster care system in all 64 counties. Plus, it has more than 5,000 employees and a $2.2 billion budget.

No matter the state, human services departments are fraught with tragedy and conflict.

Lookout Mountain Youth Services Center, a juvenile corrections facility for boys in Golden, is surrounded by a 16-foot fence with anti-climbing mesh. It is operated by the Colorado Department of Human Services. (Marvin Anani, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Under Hickenlooper’s administration, the department had to answer for an abuse scandal at Pueblo Regional Center, a home for adults with developmental and intellectual disabilities where residents had words scratched into their bodies and staff blamed paranormal activity. The food-assistance and public benefits programs were repeatedly targeted with federal sanctions for their delays in helping needy people who applied.

And there was the time in 2015 when more than 80 lawmakers signed a no-confidence letter regarding the department’s leadership and sent it to Hickenlooper’s office, forcing him to choose sides between his cabinet member and the vast majority of the legislature.

Reggie Bicha. (Handout)

Yet executive director Reggie Bicha has managed to keep the job for eight years, an anomaly nationally. He rivals Connecticut’s commissioner of social services, Roderick Bremby, who has been in the job since April 2011, three months after Bicha became Colorado’s human services director.

The average tenure across the nation for a human services director was unavailable, but experts said it is far shorter than eight years. The closest comparison available was for state public health directors, whose median tenure is less than three years, according to the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials. Bicha’s predecessor, Karen Beye, served from 2007 to 2010.

The high turnover is thanks to revolving governors’ administrations, burnout, turmoil and, as Hickenlooper put it at the height of Bicha’s conflict with lawmakers, the fact that it’s as “tough a job as there is.”

Bicha, 49, has not reapplied, noting that “eight years in a big job like this” is plenty. In an interview, he joked that he had forgotten about the legislature’s no-confidence letter. But in all seriousness, he praised Hickenlooper for “his capacity to stand up” for the people in his administration who are working hard and not taking “a political easy road of ‘I’m going to get rid of that person and bring somebody else in.’”

Hickenlooper “also said, ‘Go fix your relationships with the legislature,’ but he stood behind us,” Bicha recalled.

Bicha was recruited by Hickenlooper’s transition team from Wisconsin, where he was secretary of the Department of Children and Families. Under his leadership, the Colorado Department of Human Services added 335 more child protection caseworkers in three years after an analysis found they were understaffed and undertrained. Colorado created a statewide child abuse hotline to replace a previous system where each county had its own phone number to take referrals, and focused on moving more foster children out of institutions and into homes.

In youth corrections, the department ended use of the “Wrap,” a restraining device, and reduced solitary confinement after both were targeted in a scathing report from youth advocates, including the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado.

The department also created a quality-evaluation program called C-Stat, which tracks county-by-county outcomes in foster care, food stamps and behavioral health. County human services departments — and county commissioners — get monthly reports comparing their progress to neighboring or similar-size counties.

MORE: Read more politics and government coverage from The Colorado Sun.

The next director’s first big problem

Bicha’s department is more transparent than when he arrived, but the next human services leader surely will face a host of issues, old and new. At the forefront now is the state’s backlogged system for people with mental illness who have been found incompetent to face criminal charges and are languishing in jail for treatment to “restore them to competency.”

The law requires treatment within 28 days, but the state is not meeting that deadline.

Colorado has seen a huge increase in competency restorations in the last two decades, from 85 in 2000 to more than 1,000 last year, according to the human services department. Disability Law Colorado sued the state in a case that has been ongoing for years.

“Our ability to keep up with the number of beds that we need to meet that significant growth and demand is something, unfortunately, that we have not been able to resolve in this administration,” Bicha said.

The new administration and incoming legislature should consider changing statute to allow people in need of restoration to receive it while living in the community instead of a state hospital, Bicha said. Either that, or the state needs a lot more beds.

“The way the criminal code is written, we have to serve people in a hospital setting who don’t need to be in a hospital,” he said. “It’s squeezing out people who do need to be in a hospital.” And it’s causing people with mental illness to sit in jail, in violation of state law.

Bicha, a former social worker, has yet to figure out his next job, but said he is looking for a position serving kids and families outside of state government.

Where’s everybody going?

Polis’ selection committee members aren’t talking about their goals and neither is Polis’ office. Polis spokeswoman Mara Sheldon declined to answer questions about the governor-elect’s vision for the future of state agencies, including human services.

But several department directors who served under Hickenlooper have announced their new jobs or told The Colorado Sun they did not reapply to keep their current positions. A few have indicated they’re hoping to stay.

Clockwise from top left: Kim Bimestefer, who was appointed in January as head of the Colorado Department of Health Care Policy and Financing;  Michael Hartman, who about a year and a half ago was appointed by Hickenlooper as executive director of the Colorado Department of Revenue;  Dan Baer, executive director of the Colorado Department of Higher Education; and Mike Lewis, executive director of the Colorado Department of Transportation. (Handout photos)

“It would be an honor,” said Michael Hartman, who about a year and a half ago was appointed by Hickenlooper as executive director of the Colorado Department of Revenue, which oversees the lottery, the tax division and the Division of Motor Vehicles.

Kim Bimestefer, who was appointed in January as head of the Colorado Department of Health Care Policy and Financing, reapplied for her position but declined to give an interview for this story. Bimestefer, who has focused on cutting hospital costs for consumers in the last year, oversees the state’s Medicaid spending as well as a low-cost public health insurance plan for pregnant women and children.

At the state health department, questions about whether acting executive director Karin McGowan applied for the permanent job were rebuffed. “I think you should ask the governor-elect’s team that question,” said Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment spokesman Mark Salley.

McGowan was appointed in August after Dr. Larry Wolk, who had been head of the department since 2013, left for a job in the private sector.

At the Colorado Department of Higher Education, the response was similar: no comment about whether Dan Baer, appointed as executive director in May, had reapplied. Colorado Department of Transportation executive director Michael Lewis, appointed one year ago, also had no comment.

Colorado’s secretary of technology and chief information officer, Suma Nallapati, recently announced she would leave at the end of Hickenlooper’s term to become senior vice president of DISH Network. She had been in the state job since 2014.

And Department of Corrections executive director Rick Raemisch, who was appointed in 2013 following the murder of the previous director by a parolee, did not re-apply to serve under Polis, a department spokesman said. Raemisch received national attention during his tenure for his work in reducing solitary confinement.

The first department head hires by the Polis team are expected as soon as next week.


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