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In sudden cabinet shake-up, Gov. Parson announces director changes in 5 Missouri agencies

 Gov. Mike Parson announces funding for help health care providers treat COVID-19 patients.
Jonathan Ahl
St. Louis Public Radio
Gov. Mike Parson announces funding for help health care providers treat COVID-19 patients.

The departures include Commissioner of Administration Sarah Steelman and a change in the Department of Social Services.

Gov. Mike Parson announced a sudden cabinet shake-up Tuesday, with a slew of personnel changes across five state agencies — including the immediate and unexplained departure of the official in charge of the state’s procurement agency.

In a news release Tuesday afternoon, Parson announced Office of Administration (OA) Commissioner Sarah Steelman was stepping down and being replaced in the short term by Ken Zellers, the director of the department of revenue.

OA handles contracting and procurement for state government.

No reason was provided for Steelman’s departure in a news release Tuesday.

In a text message, Steelman said she was called into the office of Parson’s chief of staff and asked to resign earlier in the day Tuesday.

“I asked if I did something wrong,” she said in her text message, “and he said ‘no.’ So I resigned.”

She added: “It was a privilege to get to serve the citizens of Missouri and work with the tremendous team at the Office of Administration.”

Jennifer Tidball, the embattled acting director of the Department of Social Services (DSS), will also step down from her role next week to continue to serve as the department’s chief operating officer. She will be replaced by Parson’s deputy chief of staff, Robert Knodell.

Knodell, who most recently served as acting director of the Department of Health and Senior Services, had been rumored to be up for the acting director position of DSS.

Representatives for OA and DSS did not immediately respond to requests for comment Tuesday.

Steelman was appointed to her role leading OA by former Gov. Eric Greitens. She stayed on in the job after Parson took office following Greitens’ resignation in 2018.

Her husband, David Steelman, was a longtime member of the University of Missouri Board of Curators who had a falling out with Parson earlier this year after raising objections about an adviser to the governor using his connections to the university to seek business for other lobbying clients.

David Steelman expressed concern that if he didn’t “play ball” with Steve Tilley, a lobbyist and longtime friend of the governor, that he’d lose his seat on the board of curators.

Parson demanded David Steelman resign after the concerns became public. When he refused, the governor appointed a replacement for him on the board after the legislature adjourned for the year, avoiding what promised to be a tough confirmation battle in the Missouri Senate.

Steelman’s tenure at OA also involved a federal investigating of tracking devices placed on her vehicle and the vehicle of the state’s former chief operating officer, Drew Erdmann. The devices were put on their vehicles by aprivate investigator who said he was aided by Rep. Dottie Bailey, R-Eureka. It’s unclear if the investigation remains ongoing.

Tidball has faced intense criticism from lawmakers over the past year, who have held a series of legislative hearings looking into the department’s handling of abuse and neglect at youth residential facilities, layoffs of Children’s Division employees and failure to report missing foster kids to authorities.

Bailey, who has been outspoken in her criticisms of the department this session, previously told The Independent she would like to see Tidball replaced.

“I would love to see anybody but Jennifer Tidball — anybody qualified,” Bailey said. “But under her reign, it’s just gone downhill. And so any good business would replace that person immediately.”

Many lawmakers told The Independent last month that someone with firsthand experience in the field who has worked their way up through the ranks of the department to lead it would be ideal.

Among Parson’s vetoes this year, was nixing language that would have required the DSS director be “confirmed by the Senate to hold the office” in order to be paid their salary.

Tidball has yet to be confirmed by state lawmakers’ despite serving her second stint as acting director.

In his veto letter, Parson wrote the change was not part of his budget recommendations and “undermines the Executive’s constitutional authority to appoint and compensate department directors.”

Rep. Jered Taylor, the chair of the House Special Committee on Government Oversight that has held hearings on DSS, said there may be legislation proposed this upcoming session to ensure that the DSS department director be confirmed by lawmakers within a certain period of time.

“There’s a reason we have that set up in the state of Missouri that they have to be confirmed through the Senate,” Taylor said. “And I think our frustration as a committee is, it appears that we’re trying to get around that by just allowing an interim for forever, rather than getting them confirmed.”

Tidball was appointed by Parson as acting director of DSS in May 2019. She previously served as the director of the Division of Finance and Administrative Services and had also served as the interim director of the MO HealthNet, the state’s Medicaid program. She has been with the department since 1995, according to a previous news release.

Additionally, the Department of Revenue’s General Counsel Joseph Plaggenberg will become acting director effective immediately.

In the Department of Mental Health, Valerie Huhn, the agency’s deputy director, will become acting director when department Director Mark Stringer retires at the end of the month.

Similarly, Maggie Kost, the deputy director of the Department of Economic Development, will become acting director when current Director Rob Dixon departs later this month for his new role as the director of community and economic development for Ameren Missouri.

In a statement, Parson thanked agency leaders for their work.

“These leaders have helped move our state forward while navigating some of the hardest times in our state’s history,” Parson said. “This transition in state government will better position our cabinet to provide the best possible service to Missourians in the coming years.”

The cabinet moves come months after two top members of Parson’s cabinet, former Department of Health and Senior Services Director Randall Williams and Chief Operating Officer Drew Erdmann, resigned suddenly in April with little explanation as to why.

This story was originally published on the Missouri Independent.

Jason Hancock has been writing about Missouri since 2011, most recently as lead political reporter for The Kansas City Star. He has spent nearly two decades covering politics and policy for news organizations across the Midwest, and has a track record of exposing government wrongdoing and holding elected officials accountable.
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