May 22, 2018

Oregon Governor Fires State Librarian

In a decision that caught many members of the Oregon library community by surprise, Gov. Kate Brown fired Oregon State Librarian MaryKay Dahlgreen on March 13. Dahlgreen’s position, which she had held since 2012, was up for reconfirmation in May. Brown withdrew her nomination of Dahlgreen in February, citing a lack of support from the state senate and a failure to meet “clear and timely expectations from legislators,” according to a statement provided by Brown’s press secretary Kate Kondayen.

However, most of the 30-member senate either supported or were neutral on the subject of Dahlgreen’s confirmation, according to reports from the Oregon Library Association (OLA) and the Oregon Statesman Journal. Members of OLA and the State Library Board noted that they had not been consulted prior to Brown’s announcement of the decision, and publicly objected to Dahlgreen’s firing. And Dahlgreen told LJ that she did not see the governor’s decision coming, nor had she received any specific performance feedback beforehand.

Caren Agata will serve as interim state librarian until a permanent appointment recommendation has been made by the governor’s office and approved by the state senate.

Dahlgren began her career at the State Library of Oregon (SLO) in 1996 as a youth services consultant, moving on to become program manager of library development in 2005. In January 2012 she was appointed interim state librarian before stepping into the role of state librarian two months later, after Jim Scheppke retired and his replacement, Robert Hulshof-Schmidt, was discovered to have forged documents to make it look as though he had an MLS.

New approvals needed

Until recently, Oregon’s state librarian was appointed by the State Library Board. A 2015 bill, HB 3523, reorganized management of the SLO and placed personnel issues under the governor’s purview; Dahlgreen’s tenure was extended until July 2017. The bill also reorganized the board to better represent stakeholders served by the SLO, which provides resources and assistance to government agencies, local libraries throughout the state, and people with print reading disabilities.

In December 2017, Dahlgreen was asked to provide supporting materials and a letter of interest in order to apply for reappointment, and Brown submitted her name to the Senate Rules Committee for reconfirmation. Dahlgreen was to appear at a hearing before the committee on February 8, she told LJ.

On February 7, however, she received a call from the governor’s policy advisor and director of executive appointments. The Democratic caucus had reported that there were not enough senate votes to confirm Dahlgreen, they told her, and her name had been withdrawn. They suggested that after the legislative session in February they could discuss next steps, Dahlgreen said, and perhaps approach the dissenting senators to clarify why they wouldn’t vote for her.

Although Dahlgreen didn’t hear from the governor’s office in February, the deputy chief of staff scheduled a meeting for her on March 8. “I walked in thinking that we would be talking about how to figure out what the problem was and how to rectify it in terms of not having the senate confirmation votes,” Dahlgreen told LJ. “I was instead told that they were sure that there were not enough votes. I said, ‘How do you know that?’ And they said, ‘We did our due diligence.’” Dahlgreen was offered the choice of resigning or being fired.

At first, she recalled, her response was, “Well, fire me.” But after thinking about it overnight, Dahlgreen called and offered to resign if the governor’s office would explain the situation, and state publicly that she was not being asked to leave for cause. Brown’s office described that as “a place we can start,” according to Dahlgreen, and called a meeting for the following Monday, March 12.

“I walked in, and they said, ‘So are you going to resign?’” Dahlgreen told LJ. “And I said, ‘If the governor takes responsibility for making this decision, I’ll resign.’ And they said, ‘Well then, we’ll fire you.’”

Dahlgreen informed her staff, composed a brief goodbye message on the state library community Listserv, and packed up her office. On Tuesday afternoon a representative from the human resources department escorted her out of the building. “I was really disappointed,” said Dahlgreen. “I was hoping for state troopers to walk me out of the building.”

Humor aside, Dahlgreen recalls being “completely and totally” blindsided by the firing. “One of the things I’ve been asked is, did anybody ever say to you that you’re not doing your job?” she said. “Did anybody in the governor’s office say that? And I said, no. Not verbally, not written. It was completely out of the blue.”

Dahlgreen acknowledges that being able to choose to be fired was a privilege, noting, “I realize that [for] a lot of people, particularly women early in their career or without another household income, it would be very difficult” (her choice to allow Governor Brown to fire her will not affect her eligibility for unemployment or retirement benefits). Still, she is still working to understand what happened.

Library reaction

In a letter to Governor Brown, OLA president Buzzy Nielsen wrote, “We were shocked and bewildered to hear about your office’s recent decision to dismiss State Librarian MaryKay Dahlgreen. Both the State Library and Dahlgreen have been invaluable partners in the Oregon Library Association’s efforts to support libraries, library workers, and the patrons they serve statewide. We are confused about this seemingly sudden decision, made without consultation with key stakeholders and despite Dahlgreen’s strong track record as agency head.”

In particular, Nielsen noted OLA’s support for the passage of HB 3523 in 2015. OLA supported the legislation, he noted, because members felt that being a governor-appointed position would give the state librarian similar stature and accountability to other executive department heads.

This was the first time Brown’s office needed to confirm the state librarian position, Nielsen told LJ, “and what they did not realize is there’s a very vocal and active community that was paying attention to it.”

Dahlgreen’s most vocal detractor in the senate has been Sen. Betsy Johnson (D-Scappoose), a longstanding critic of SLO and Dahlgreen’s management. During the 2015 hearing for HB 3523, Johnson expressed doubts that the reorganization would effect the changes needed at SLO, some of which had been outstanding since 2011.

Nielsen conceded that Johnson was correct that the library was due to address some redundancies—the State Law Library and the State Archives serve a number of overlapping functions as the SLO, for instance. Agata was brought on at the beginning of 2017 as government information and library services program manager largely to help move work that work forward—much of which has been achieved under Dahlgreen’s watch, including closing the public reference room, relocating the Willamette Valley Genealogical Society, and transferring the Oregon Poetry Collection to the University of Oregon Library.

“I think she was very attuned to what legislature was asking for, as was the board, and there was not resistance on any body’s part to implementing those changes,” Anne Malkin, chair of the State Library Board, told the Portland Tribune.

But Johnson’s lack of support for Dahlgreen wouldn’t have been enough to vote down her nomination; a reconfirmation vote only requires a simple majority—16 votes—to approve an executive appointment. According to The Oregonian, a spokeswoman for the Senate Republican Caucus said that no Republican had voiced serious objections.

Nielsen suspects that a decision to withhold votes for Dahlgreen was made within the Democratic caucus. “While I can’t say [they] handled the situation terribly well, they were largely put in the position by the Senate,” he told LJ. “If MaryKay had been put up for a confirmation vote, and if the senators had actually voted how they felt about having her as an executive appointment, she would have been approved.”

He added, “We didn’t see the governor choosing to withdraw MaryKay’s nomination [coming]. What we did see was one senator in particular expressing a lot of displeasure with the state library…. But we did not see any widespread disapproval…in the legislature. So this did come as a shock to us.”

A series of news articles with headlines such as The Oregonian’s “Puzzling ouster of Oregon’s state librarian follows one senator’s outrage” echo the confusion shared by the state’s library community.

“I don’t think [Brown and] her staff had any idea how [angry] the libraries in this state would be,” Dahlgreen told LJ. “She didn’t talk to the state library board, which is governor appointed and senate confirmed, she didn’t talk to [OLA]. Statutorily, she has every right to fire me. I serve at the pleasure. And that’s fine. But statute is one thing. And doing the right thing is another.”

Dahlgreen is the seventh state department head to leave since Brown took office in 2015. Leadership at the Department of Education, Lottery, Health Authority, Employment Department, and Department of Human Services have either resigned—several at Brown’s request—or been dismissed. Brown, a Democrat, is running for reelection this year.

Dahlgreen is honored by the voices being raised on her behalf, she said, although not surprised by their vehemence. “I’ve been working with libraries in Oregon for 22 years…. I know what the librarians are like. So I wasn’t surprised, but I was pleased.”

Filling big shoes

OLA is working with the governor’s office to help find names to put forward for state librarian nominations. “Our focus right now is that we want to set the agency and the next state librarian up for success,” said Nielsen. He will be talking to leadership at COSLA (Chief Officers of State Library Agencies), among others, but acknowledges, “Our job is a little bit hard right now, partially because everybody in Oregon knows this happened.” Neilsen wishes to surface a director with both an MLS—a requirement for the job—and a Master of Public Administration degree. He hopes to have a name for confirmation by September. Until then Agata, Dahlgreen noted, will be an “incredibly capable” interim director.

In the meantime, OLA’s lobbyist, Amanda Dalton, is setting up meetings with the association and senate leadership to talk through the aftermath of Dahlgreen’s firing and to define expectations for OSL going forward.

While Dahlgreen has no plans to serve as a state agency director again, she plans to work in libraries in some capacity. “This is not the last we’ve seen of MaryKay in the Oregon lib community,” Nielsen told LJ. “She’s not retiring. We were happy to hear that.”

As for SLO, Dahlgreen predicted, “I think the state library will continue to do the incredibly good work that it does, that I think is evidenced by the support that the libraries in the state have shown. That wasn’t just for me—that was for the state library.”

Lisa Peet About Lisa Peet

Lisa Peet is Associate Editor, News for Library Journal.

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Comments

  1. Tony Greiner says:

    I have been a librarian in Oregon for 25 years, and worked with MaryKay Dahlgreen on many occasions. I have no doubt that her firing had something to do with the Governor’s personality, not Dahlgreen’s job performance. The Governor wants no one around her who thinks independently.

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