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Capital Chatter: Clarno changing tone of Secretary of State's Office

Late Secretary Dennis Richardson's independent, deep-digging audits will continue, but the communication style will change.

Oregon's new secretary of state already has shaken up the agency's top staff. Bev Clarno is changing the tone as well.

Audits Director Kip Memmott and new Deputy Secretary of State Rich Vial told legislators this week that Clarno will continue the late Secretary Dennis Richardson's independent, deep-digging audits but the communication style will change.

Sen. Bill Hansell, R-Athena, raised that issue. He noted there were claims — because Richardson was the only statewide elected Republican — that politics played a role in the audit choices and outcomes.

"He wanted to turn up the volume, and that was his way of having impact," Memmott said of Richardson. "I would say as a professional auditor, while me and my staff squirmed sometimes at that, nothing about that approach was unethical from an audit perspective."

Memmott, Vial and other secretary of state officials testified to the Joint Subcommittee on General Government about the agency's 2019-21 budget.

Vial said Richardson's approach might have unintentionally short-circuited an audit's effect because Richardson's marketing of the audit report comes came across as hyper-partisan.

"Secretary of State Clarno has made it clear that Secretary Richardson's effort to really increase the transparency of our government operations is something that she's committed to continuing," Vial said. "I don't think you will see any reduction whatsoever in the level of detail and the attempt to be very, very thorough in exposing where we can do better. But I do suspect you may see a slight rebalancing of how those things are communicated."

Expanding state audits: The Audits Division has the authority to audit all three branches of government — executive, legislative and judicial. There has been tension with the Legislature, which wanted its own audits operation.

In his testimony, Memmott stressed the independence of the division and said no official can unduly influence the outcome of an audit.

Audit subjects are selected based on the highest risk that a program or operation poses to the state government, which is why he wants the Legislature to fund a full-time audit team to keep watch on Oregon's Medicaid spending.

Richardson was who asked that Portland Public Schools be included with an audit of the Oregon Department of Education, Memmott said. The Audits Division now is looking for a rural school district to include in an upcoming audit of ODE programs for special-needs students.

The Audits Division also is taking the private-sector approach of conducting more "real-time" audits to prevent problems before they occur, especially in IT.

"We want to prevent the milk from being spilled," Memmott said. "Not come in and audit and say, 'You spilled milk. Don't do it again.'"

In December, Memmott had suggested to legislators that each year the public make the final choice on one agency to audit. Incredulous lawmakers trashed that idea, with Sen. Betsy Johnson, D-Scappoose, saying it sounded like pandering to public opinion.

Who audits the auditors: A peer review of the Audits Division will happen in May, as it does every three years. Auditors from around the country will arrive to examine whether the agency meets the nationally recognized audit standards.

Changes in SOS staff: Secretary of State Clarno has cut ties with Larry Morgan, whom Richardson appointed as the secretary of state's first-ever director of diversity and inclusion.

Clarno previously ousted several top staff members. Her new hires include deputy Vial, a former one-term Republican state representative from rural Washington County; Legislative Director Andrea Chiapella, who was a senior policy analyst for the Oregon Senate Republican Office; and Communications Director Tayleranne Gillespie, who was the spokeswoman for the Senate Republicans.

Remembering Norma Paulus: A public memorial service for Norma Paulus — lawyer, legislator, secretary of state, Republican candidate for governor and state superintendent of public instruction — will be at 2 p.m. Saturday in Smith Auditorium at Willamette University. Paulus, who died Feb. 28 at age 85, was a life trustee of Willamette. She earned her law degree there despite lacking an undergraduate degree.

Paulus' tenure as secretary of state coincided with my first fulltime gig covering state government as a newspaper reporter. She was one of the toughest yet delightful politicians I have encountered. Her courage and tenacity were complemented by her sense of humor, which sometimes got her in trouble, and her integrity.

Things I remember:

• Long before the era of cell phones, Norma — everyone called her by her first name — would return my phone calls no matter where she was on state business.

• She did not need a PR person. She routinely walked through the Capitol pressroom, especially at the end of the day, to tell journalists what was going on and to answer any questions. Back then, Gov. Vic Atiyeh was similarly available, often eating lunch in the public café at the opposite end of the Capitol basement from the pressroom.

• Norma loved history. She later became head of the Oregon Historical Society, and once took me through OHS' vast collection of stored artifacts. As secretary of state, she took me into the maze of tunnels beneath Oregon State Hospital. She was angry that the state was wasting unused furniture and other items by stashing them there and under poor conditions.

• Once, I interviewed her over lunch on some long-forgotten topic. What I remember is her almost-joking comment that no Oregonians should be allowed to vote until they had visited Crater Lake National Park. She loved Oregon — its people, its landscape and its seascape — and believed all Oregonians should know their state.

Gov. Kate Brown, herself a former secretary of state, ordered that flags at public institutions be flown at half-staff on Saturday in honor of Paulus.

"Norma Paulus was a pioneer who shattered glass ceilings in Oregon. As the first woman elected to statewide office in Oregon, she paved the way for so many of us to one day run for public office," Brown said, adding that she and first gentleman Dan Little "celebrate her life and legacy, and wish her family comfort during this time."

Dick Hughes, who writes the weekly Capital Chatter column, has been covering the Oregon political scene since 1976. Contact him at TheHughesisms@Gmail.com, Facebook.com/Hughesisms, YouTube.com/DickHughes or Twitter.com/DickHughes.