Since his landslide re-election, Idaho Gov. Butch Otter is spending significantly less time in the office.
Otter, 69, typically doesn’t show up at the office Mondays, instead scheduling “general office time” with no appointments. He works from home, according to a former chief of staff.
Comparing 12-month periods from Otter’s third year in office to his fifth year, an Idaho Statesman analysis shows:
• 27 percent fewer appointments, both official and unofficial.
• 29 percent fewer hours scheduled for those appointments.
• 33 percent less time spent traveling for official and unofficial purposes, both in Idaho and elsewhere.
• 28 percent increase in personal and vacation days, with 41 days off during the business week in the last 12 months.
The analysis is based on three years of scheduling records – from Nov. 1, 2008, to Oct. 31, 2011 – obtained under Idaho’s public records law.
The Statesman provided the governor with its analysis of his records, but he declined repeated requests for comment, beginning in mid-November. Otter’s spokesman, Jon Hanian, also would not comment on Otter’s workload but did not dispute the findings.
Planning a third term
On Dec. 14, Otter surprised a crowd in Coeur d’Alene with an exceptionally early announcement: He’ll run again in 2014. “It surprised me; it surprised a lot of people,” said his two-time campaign manager, Debbie Field.
Field scoffed at speculation that Otter would be re-elected a third time and then resign to hand the job to a man he appointed, Lt. Gov. Brad Little. “You do not as a candidate work this hard and then turn it over to someone else,” Field said, adding that Otter’s vow to run was loudly applauded. “I will tell you he feels really great.”
Little said he and Otter have never discussed Otter resigning. “No. None. Zero. Not even close.”
Public awareness of Otter’s schedule has risen in recent weeks, with news that he sent Little on a trade mission to Brazil and Mexico last month while he vacationed at the National Finals Rodeo in Las Vegas instead.
Otter also spent a week in Hawaii and a week in Florida in November, though those trips wouldn’t count as vacation under the Statesman analysis – Otter was speaking to the California Independent Voter Project in Hawaii and attending the Republican Governors Association annual meeting.
Otter may not be commenting, but two confidants offered insight into how the office operates and praised Otter’s work ethic.
“He works from home,” said Jason Kreizenbeck, Otter’s chief of staff for almost four years. “There were a lot of times when he wasn’t in the office and he didn’t have anything officially scheduled, but he was still working. We would send stuff to him and talk to him about things. Whenever there was work to be done, he did the work.”
Kreizenbeck, who left in October to join a lobbying firm, reviewed the Statesman analysis and deemed it flawed.
“I don’t agree with the basic premise of your story to begin with and still have not heard people saying he’s not working very hard,” he said. “I don’t feel you can measure how hard a governor or any elected official works by measuring their office hours or how much time they dedicate to meetings. It should be measured by outcomes and accomplishments of the administration.”
Jeff Malmen, Otter’s chief in 2007, said he’s seen no evidence Otter is mailing it in.
“There’s a whole lot more to the job than sitting there and yakking with people who sit across the desk from you,” Malmen said. “There’s a lot of stuff that goes on that has nothing to do with appointments.”
Otter was to have led mission
Little said Otter asked him to fill in on the December trip to Mexico and Brazil. When it was announced in February, Otter was to have led the mission, then scheduled for June.
Commerce Director Jeffery Sayer said the decision to reschedule was made in the governor’s office. Hanian, Otter’s spokesman, declined to say why Otter rescheduled.
House Minority Leader John Rusche, D-Lewiston, said he has no trouble reaching Otter, but finds the governor’s lighter schedule concerning. “I think it is a little strange. I’m surprised what the data show.”
Rusche said Idaho’s budgetary and economic challenges are formidable. “I would think that would take more time, rather than less time.”
Still, Rusche said, Little is a more-than-suitable replacement. Little led a trade trip to Taiwan in June that Rusche joined. “Brad may be a better fit,” Rusche said. “He knows a lot of the businesses in Idaho. Brad is stepping up, particularly in economic development, trade and business.”
Ron Nilson, CEO of Ground Force Manufacturing in Post Falls, was on the Brazil-Mexico missioand said their hosts showed no sign of feeling slighted. “I’m not sure the countries we go to know the real difference between a lieutenant governor and a governor. They know it’s a high-ranking official. Brad did a great job. He’s got a great personality.”
Hawaii trumps natural gas
House Speaker Lawerence Denney, R-Midvale, is critical of Otter being in Hawaii on Nov. 15, rather than chairing the meeting of the state Oil and Gas Commission. Little stood in, overseeing the approval of new rules for natural gas exploration, which are subject to review by the 2012 Legislature.
“I wish he was there,” Denney said. “This is a big deal for not only my district, but it’s a big deal for Idaho.”
Instead, Otter and his wife were in Maui on a five-day trip with expenses paid by the California Independent Voter Project. Otter had planned to stay longer, but changed his plans to be home for the Nov. 18 execution of Paul Ezra Rhoades.
Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Luna, one of five oil and gas commissioners, said during the meeting that the nascent industry holds great promise for boosting the economy and revenue for schools. “Wyoming hit the natural resources lottery,” Luna said. “We have an opportunity to do the same thing ourselves.”
Hanian, Otter’s spokesman, said Otter committed to travel to Hawaii in August and that he has missed only four of 66 meetings of the Land Board, which has the same membership as the commission.
Generally, Denney said, he can reach Otter when necessary. “Of course, I have his cell number, so he may not be in the office but I feel like I can get ahold of him anytime.”
Available, but to all?
House Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Maxine Bell, R-Jerome, said the scheduling records show Otter does “have a different pattern of activity” in the last year, but that it has had no impact on her.
“I did not see anything different,” Bell said. “If there is a budget issue, we are called and the subject is visited. Perhaps he is finding as he continues to serve that his hours and days can look different and still accomplish what he feels necessary.”
Bell’s counterpart, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, has served with five governors. He said he is able to reach Otter whenever he needs him.
Cameron added that since the 2010 election he’s seen no change in his access to Otter or in the governor’s interest. “I really haven’t noticed any difference in his level of engagement, his ability to command a discussion about the budget or health insurance exchanges or any of those issues. He’s certainly been fully engaged in that regard.”
Jim Weatherby, professor emeritus at Boise State and an observer of Idaho politics for 40 years, said he finds the analysis of Otter’s schedule unsurprising. “He’s never held himself out to be a hands-on, nuts-and-bolts governor. He’s been very clear about delegating a lot of his responsibilities to department heads.”
Weatherby said he also expects top lawmakers and lobbyists can reach Otter. “The real question here is: As a result of the governor’s cutting back his hours, has it meant the denial of access to average citizens who want to communicate with him?”