Topeka Democratic legislative leaders on Thursday said Gov. Sam Brownback’s pick to lead the state social welfare agency should be rejected.
But Brownback’s spokeswoman issued a statement defending Robert Siedlecki Jr., who faces a Senate confirmation hearing next week to become secretary of the Kansas Department of Social and Rehabilitation Services.
“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,” said Sherriene Jones-Sontag. SRS had referred questions to Jones-Sontag. “The administration is very confident in his nomination,” she said.
But Senate Democratic Leader Anthony Hensley of Topeka said of Seidlecki, “I don’t think he is qualified.”
Hensley said a recent email raised questions about Siedlecki, who prior to coming to Kansas was chief of staff of the Florida Department of Health.
The email was written by a member of the board of the Association of Community Mental Health Centers of Kansas, Hensley said. He provided copies to reporters but blacked out the name of the writer.
The email says that during a recent meeting, Siedlecki said that after the Legislature finalized the SRS budget, he would reallocate funds to faith-based initiatives.
“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 that this has never happened before,” the email said.
The email had a date of March 17. Five days later, Mike Hammond, who is executive director of the Association of Mental Health Centers of Kansas, wrote to state Sen. Carolyn McGinn, R-Sedgwick, who is chair of the committee considering Siedlecki’s appointment.
In that letter, Hammond says that one of his board members misinterpreted Siedlecki’s comments. Hammond said Siedlecki has said he will honor the Legislature’s “intent on funding existing programs.” He also said the association supports Siedlecki’s nomination by Brownback.
Hensley said Hammond was coerced by Siedlecki to write that letter to McGinn. In an interview with the Lawrence Journal-World, Hammond said that wasn’t true.
Hammond said one of Siedlecki’s staff members suggested that Hammond write the letter. But Hammond said he was more than happy to do that to clarify the association’s position.
In his budget proposal, Brownback has recommended cutting $15 million in mental health funding. Mental health advocates have been fighting the proposal.
Siedlecki and Brownback have expressed strong interest in pursuing faith-based initiatives in SRS. Siedlecki’s resume includes a stint as senior legal counsel to the task force on faith-based and community initiatives at the U.S. Justice Department.
House Democratic Leader Paul Davis of Lawrence and Hensley also criticized some recent hirings by Siedlecki.
Asked what the concern was, Davis said, “Two words. Bob Corkins.”
Corkins was hired by Siedlecki to be SRS’ chief legal counsel. In 2005, Corkins was running a one-person conservative think tank, when he was selected to be state education commissioner by a conservative majority on the State Board of Education despite the fact that he had no experience as a teacher or school administrator. He left that position in 2006 when the board majority changed.
Jeff Kahrs, who was chief of staff for former U.S. Rep. Todd Tiahrt, has been hired as Siedlecki’s chief of staff.
Hensley also questioned why Siedlecki was hired by Brownback at $115,000 per year, which is $2,250 more than former SRS secretary Don Jordan made. Jordan had 30 years of experience at the agency, Hensley said.