At a routine meeting of an Oregon legislative subcommittee, state Sen. Betsy Johnson unleashed the ire she’s fostered for six years over the state library’s performance.
“We have spent I don’t know how many untold hours trying to figure out how to cure a hundred years of tradition unhampered by progress and it hasn’t gotten better,” she told fellow lawmakers weighing the library’s proposed budget.
Less than a year later, Gov. Kate Brown ousted State Librarian MaryKay Dahlgreen, surprising and disappointing Dahlgreen’s many supporters among librarians and library supporters.
Brown’s office declined to explain the move beyond saying “Dahlgreen fell short of clear and timely expectations from legislators.” But the librarian’s ouster on Tuesday appears to have been driven by the discontent of one person: Johnson.
Johnson is forthright in her frustration with the state library. But she said the idea that she alone is behind the firing is “absurd.”
“Do the math. Even if I voted ‘no,’ you still don’t have the numbers,” to defeat Dahlgreen’s nomination, Johnson said.
She’s right, which points to a curious decision Brown’s office has refused to explain.
A new law meant Brown needed to nominate a state librarian for the first time this year. Brown initially submitted Dahlgreen’s name for reappointment.
Democratic Caucus leader Sen. Ginny Burdick said last week that she informed Brown’s office earlier this year that a few senators in her party had qualms with Dahlgreen’s performance. Burdick declined to explain the qualms or name the lawmakers who didn’t support Dahlgreen.
Brown quickly withdrew Dahlgreen’s name and decided she had to go. Governor spokeswoman Kate Kondayen said Brown offered Dahlgreen the chance to stay in her position while she and her staff looked for a replacement. But Dahlgreen chose to be fired immediately.
In a chamber with 30 members, it takes 16 votes to confirm a nominee for a state director’s job — a bar Dahlgreen would likely have passed even with a few senators objecting.
Some Democratic lawmakers who called for changes at the state library soon after Dahlgreen became the head said they would have voted for her.
A spokeswoman for the 12-member Senate Republican Caucus said that no Republican had serious objections to Dahlgreen.
It is highly unusual for one lawmaker to wield veto power over such appointments. Johnson carries outsized powers at the Legislature, in part because she is the Democrat most likely to part ways with fellow Democrats, thus having unusual power to make or break Senate deals.
Johnson said Friday there was “unequivocally no” trade with Brown’s office to quash Dahlgreen’s reappointment.
Kondayen said she had no comment when asked how many senators were opposed to Dahlgreen’s reappointment or whether Johnson played a role.
She also refused to elaborate on what expectation Dahlgreen failed to meet, repeatedly pointing to this statement: “MaryKay Dahlgreen fell short of clear and timely expectations from legislators, and as a result of these performance issues, did not have the Senate support necessary for confirmation.”
Until this year, the Oregon State Library board of directors had the power to appoint the state librarian. However, that changed as part of a wide-ranging bill that revamped how the state library functions.
Library leaders in the state, including the board of directors and Dahlgreen, supported the change because they said it seemed to give the department equal gravitas as other state agencies.
Some started to regret that decision this week when Dahlgreen was dismissed with little explanation or prior notice.
Dahlgreen was widely respected by the library community in Oregon and had the support of the lead lobbying and industry group, Oregon Library Association.
The state library performs three main roles: conducts research for other state departments; provides money and expertise to libraries around the state to make sure they are up-to-date; and distributes audiobooks and Braille books for people with vision impairment or physical obstacles to holding a print book.
Johnson, D-Scappoose, has complained about the state library’s performance for years, including under previous state librarians.
In the May hearing, she railed against what she said were long unresolved issues in how staff perform their jobs. One concern in particular: She was frustrated that managers couldn’t define one of the key metrics by which the library agreed to have its performance judged.
“When I hear the professional staff talk about a need to define what a ‘research transaction’ is — we’ve been talking about this for six years!” Johnson said. “I don’t know when that definition comes. I don’t know why this is so difficult. I just — I don’t get it.”
Dahlgreen assured her that the problem would be solved by the next budget request in 2019.
“2019? that’s almost a decade to get this done,” Johnson said. “I think this is just shameful.”
Rep. Mike Nearman, R-Independence, also voted against the library’s budget and proposed key performance measures. But he said he had nothing against Dahlgreen. He voted on ideological grounds that he doesn’t see a need for the state library to exist, he said.