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Eye on Boise: The keys to a friendly transition

Former Idaho Gov. Phil Batt, center, receives the 2019 Idaho Medal of Achievement from outgoing Gov. Butch Otter and Governor-elect Brad Little, right, Thursday, Jan. 3, 2019, during a ceremony at the Statehouse in Boise. (Darin Oswald / AP)
Former Idaho Gov. Phil Batt, center, receives the 2019 Idaho Medal of Achievement from outgoing Gov. Butch Otter and Governor-elect Brad Little, right, Thursday, Jan. 3, 2019, during a ceremony at the Statehouse in Boise. (Darin Oswald / AP)
By Betsy Z. Russell Idaho Press-Tribune

BOISE – After he’d conducted what he referred to as his last official act in the governor’s office on Thursday, I asked outgoing Gov. Butch Otter when he’d be turning over the keys to new Gov. Brad Little.

“By law, midnight Sunday,” a cheerful Otter responded, “11:59 p.m. And then he can have my parking place, and he can park his truck there.”

Under Article IV, Section 1 of the Idaho Constitution, Idaho’s governor and other top elected officials take office on the “first Monday in January next” after the election.

Little told reporters on Thursday, “We’ll be moving in this weekend. … We don’t have the keys yet.”

He also recalled hearing stories in college from a University of Idaho political science professor, the late Syd Duncombe, who had been the budget chief for the late Gov. Cecil Andrus in his first term. Because Andrus, a Democrat, had defeated Republican incumbent Gov. Don Samuelson, “It was kind of a hostile takeover,” Little said, and the staff had to scramble to put together the state budget. This time around, Little said of Otter and his team, “I couldn’t be more grateful for how gracious they’ve been to us.”

When I interviewed Andrus in April of 2016, he told me this story about his arrival at the governor’s office to succeed Samuelson in 1971:

“My predecessor, he would not let me in to the workings,” Andrus said. “All of the files were empty.”

“In the middle of the governor’s desk was a big pile of keys – not a tag on any of ‘em, saying what they were keys to.”

Little, Otter’s lieutenant governor since 2009, will see a considerably smoother transition.

Little names agency heads

Little has named his key agency heads, including some holdovers from the Otter Administration, some new faces, and some switches between agencies. Among them:

Little chose Dave Jeppesen as the new director of the Idaho Department of Health & Welfare, the state’s single largest agency. Jeppesen has been with Blue Cross of Idaho for the past six and a half years, most recently serving as executive vice president and chief strategy and innovation officer. He also had a long career in banking.

Tom Kealey is Little’s new director of the Idaho Department of Commerce. Kealey, who lost to Julie Ellsworth in the GOP primary for state treasurer, is a co-owner of the restaurant chain Chicago Connection and a former executive at Morrison-Knudsen. Bobbi-Jo Meuleman, the current commerce chief, was named director of intergovernmental affairs, a new division in the governor’s office.

Jani Revier will be the new director of the Department of Labor. Revier has served as Gov. Butch Otter’s budget chief, heading the state Division of Financial Management, since 2013. Melinda Smyser, the current labor director, will be the new administrator of the Idaho Office of Drug Policy. She represented Canyon and Gem counties in the Idaho Senate from 2009 through 2012.

Kelley Packer will head the Idaho Bureau of Occupational Licenses. Packer, a former GOP state representative from McCammon, ran unsuccessfully in a crowded GOP primary this year for lieutenant governor.

Bryan Mooney will be the new director of the state Department of Administration, replacing current director Bob Geddes. Mooney is the former vice president of operations at MWI Veterinary Supply, the largest animal health distributor in the world.

Little named Dr. David McClusky as chairman of the board the Idaho Department of Correction. McClusky, who currently serves on the board, is a Twin Falls native and University of Idaho graduate; he received his medical degree at Northwestern University.

Debbie Field, who had been the board chair, announced her retirement from the board. She was appointed to it in 2015, and previously served in the Idaho House of Representatives for 12 years.

“I want to thank Debbie for her service to the state of Idaho,” Little said in a statement. “Her years of dedicated service helped ensure improvements to Idaho’s corrections system, especially in the areas of drug and mental health courts. She has been an outstanding and dedicated servant to the betterment of the state of Idaho.”

Wendi Secrist will be executive director of the Workforce Development Council; and Monty Prow, director of the Department of Juvenile Corrections. Prow has worked in different capacities for the Department of Juvenile Corrections since 2002.

Scott Pugrud will head the Governor’s Office of Species Conservation. Pugrud previously served as deputy administrator and legal counsel for the Idaho Office of Energy and Mineral Resources. The previous species conservation director, Dustin Miller, now heads the Idaho Department of Lands.

And on Friday, Little named Brian Wonderlich as general counsel for the office of the governor. Wonderlich, who also chaired Little’s transition team, has been a partner in the law firm of Holland & Hart for the past eight years, and also is a former deputy Idaho attorney general. He holds both undergraduate and law degrees from the University of Idaho.

Among agency heads who will stay on: Jeff Anderson, at the state Liquor Division and Idaho Lottery; Dean Cameron at the Department of Insurance; Erik Fredericksen, state appellate public defender; Celia Gould at the Department of Agriculture; Chris Jensen at the Division of Building Safety; Judy Taylor at the Commission on Aging; Susan Buxton, Division of Human Resources; Brigadier Gen. Michael Garshak, adjutant general of the Idaho National Guard; and Col. Kedrick Wills, director of the Idaho State Police.

Also staying on are John Tippets at the Department of Environmental Quality; Gary Spackman at the Department of Water Resources; John Chatburn at the Office of Energy and Mineral Resources; Jeffrey Weak, head of information technology services; and Angela Hemingway, executive director of the STEM Action Center.

“We have taken the honor of filling these positions very seriously and ensuring we have the right person to lead these agencies and departments,” Little said in a statement. “These men and women are dedicated and valuable public servants.”