It took less than a year for someone to realize that Robert Siedlecki Jr. was not the right person to lead the Kansas Department of Social and Rehabilitation Services.
Siedlecki announced Thursday that he would step down from that post on Dec. 31 and return to his home in Florida. He said he had taken another job there in order to be closer to his family, but the circumstances of his departure leave the impression that Siedlecki’s decision to leave SRS was not entirely his own.
On Thursday, Siedlecki tried to portray his exit as part of a long-term plan, saying, “I promised Governor Brownback one year to transform SRS to make it more effective and efficient …” However, it was less than a month ago that the secretary was taking umbrage at a state legislator’s comment about officials who don’t take time to learn what is going on in Kansas before trying to change things. Siedlecki quickly pointed out that he had bought a home in Kansas and was paying taxes here and told the legislator, “I prefer you call me a Kansan.”
That doesn’t sound like someone who was planning to leave the state within weeks, which raises questions about the governor’s role in his departure. On the “call me a Kansan” matter, Siedlecki could call himself a Kansan if he wanted to, but it was clear from the beginning that he didn’t understand much about how things were being done in Kansas and was making very little effort to find out.
One of the biggest complaints most Kansans had about major initiatives undertaken by Siedlecki was the way he hatched those initiatives without consulting either the people who would have to implement his plans or the people who would be directly impacted by them. Lawrence got a first-hand view of that when Siedlecki announced the closure of local SRS offices in Lawrence and elsewhere. The same criticism was voiced when the secretary took actions to dismantle the state’s juvenile justice system and undertake a major reorganization of SRS services.
When Brownback visited the Journal-World Tuesday, he was asked whether he was concerned about criticism concerning the lack of input on SRS decisions. He said that the state’s financial condition made it necessary to formulate some plans quickly and cited the number of public meetings his office had held around the state on various topics but didn’t directly address the SRS situation. Considering that Siedlecki resigned two days later, it would be interesting to know what the governor was thinking at that time — or perhaps already had decided — about the SRS secretary’s future in the state.
Although Siedlecki proudly outlined a list of accomplishments during his time at SRS, it also will be interesting to see how many of those decisions continue to be implemented after his departure and how many are revisited. Brownback has said he plans to name an acting SRS secretary before the start of the 2012 legislative session. In both the acting role and the permanent SRS appointment, it would be nice to see someone with greater experience and sensitivity to Kansas — maybe an actual Kansan — who also recognizes the importance of working collaboratively when considering policy shifts that affect thousands of people across the state.