State Politics

Idaho Labor head abruptly resigns: ‘My style did not work’

Ken Edmunds at his Downtown Boise office in February 2014, shortly after becoming director of the Idaho Department of Labor.
Ken Edmunds at his Downtown Boise office in February 2014, shortly after becoming director of the Idaho Department of Labor. Idaho Statesman file

Idaho Department of Labor Director Ken Edmunds abruptly resigned on Monday due to “philosophical differences” with Gov. Butch Otter’s office.

“I think there are certain people who strongly disagreed with the way I was handling things. So, I thought it was time to step aside.” Edmunds told the Statesman on Tuesday evening, the day Otter’s office announced his departure in a news release.

Paul Spannknebel, deputy administrator at the Idaho Division of Human Resources, will serve as acting Labor director while Otter searches for a successor.

Otter appointed Edmunds in November 2013 to replace retiring director Roger Madsen, who had spent nearly 20 years at the agency’s helm. Edmunds, from Twin Falls, previously ran a real estate and consulting business and served on the State Board of Education from 2008 up until he took the Labor job.

The Department of Labor has 550 employees. It oversees workforce development, provides resources for job seekers, and assists workers with unemployment insurance and benefits. Edmunds was paid about $125,000 a year, according to state records.

‘On a different page’

Since taking the helm at Labor, Edmunds said he has rarely spoken with the governor. The last time he personally talked to Otter was “maybe last year.”

Edmunds said he did not have a problem with this: “That is not his management style. He delegates to the department heads and his staff.”

Since taking office in January 2007, Otter has maintained a hands-off approach when it comes to his cabinet members and their jobs.

“For day-to-day operational issues, that is usually handled first by staff, not directly by the governor,” Otter spokesman Jon Hanian said Wednesday.

And Edmunds’ relationship with at least some part of Otter’s staff apparently became contentious, with differing views of where Labor should focus its resources and what types of programs it should pursue.

“I was appointed by the governor. I felt his people represented what he wanted and we had disagreement on how things should move,” Edmunds said. “There was not any big revelation, I was just on a different page than certain people.”

The departure was a mutual decision: “I elected to do it through a resignation.”

Hanian did not discuss Edmunds’ mentions of philosophical differences, but said Otter makes it a point to talk to all cabinet members who attend his“Capital for a Day” event held monthly around the state. Hanian said Edmunds has attended two of those events in the past 12 months, most recently the one held in March in Hansen.

Cabinet members can ask to speak with Otter at other times, and his staff tries to accomodate those requests within 24 hours. Edmunds had made no such requests this year except for one meeting on the calendar for October, Hanian said.

“Gov. Otter is a great guy,” Edmunds said. “The last thing I want to do is in some way imply that I am gone because of him. He gave me opportunities to do a lot of stuff and I was able to get involved with a lot of things, but my style did not work.”

Recent problems

Since Edmunds became Labor chief, the department has been the subject of at least two notable lawsuits.

In May 2015, Don Dew filed a lawsuit in Boise federal court alleging that Edmunds and former Idaho Human Rights Commission Director Pamela Parks discriminated against Dew while he was interviewing for a job as Idaho Human Rights Commission director because he has epilepsy and is gay.

Distraught over how he was treated during an interview, Dew voluntarily withdrew his application. A judge dismissed the case saying the state did not deny Dew the job because he voluntarily withdrew his application.

Dew said Tuesday that he did not know about the resignation. “The only comment I have is that sometimes change comes slowly, but it is inevitable,” he said.

Several months ago, James Cryer, a former employee, claimed in a federal whistleblower lawsuit that department higher-ups misused the department’s official subpoena power to get his phone records as they sought the source of anonymous complaints of purchasing and hiring violations in the department.

That case, filed in December, is pending in Boise federal court. Cryer’s attorney could not be reached for comment Tuesday.

Edmunds told the Statesman he is “curious” to see how that case turns out. “I am hoping it will be very transparent and people will get to see the facts,” he said. “I would like to know more myself of everything that has gone on.”

Most recently, the Legislative Services Office, the Legislature’s auditing arm, reviewed the Department of Labor’s management procedures and accounting practices over the past three fiscal years.

Its report, released Aug. 1, had one finding: The department did not properly document how companies that received key workforce training development grants were eligible for the money.

Lawmakers created the workforce development training fund in 1996 to reimburse businesses for the cost of training new workers or retraining existing workers with skills necessary for specific economic opportunities and industrial expansion initiatives.

Auditors tested 21 payments made by the department to companies under the program. In 19 percent of those payments, the department could not provide a copy of the original application. In 76 percent of the payments, the department could not provide proof that a company met the program’s requirement that its product or service was mainly sold outside the area where it was located.

Neither the lawsuits nor the audit were factors in Edmunds’ departure, he said.

“It is typical to have findings,” he said of the audit. “We love to find out when we are doing something wrong so we can correct it. That one is pretty simple and straightforward. We found out where the procedural problems were and corrected it.”

Political support

The resignation produced few immediate public reactions from within Idaho’s political sphere.

State Rep. Stephen Hartgen, R-Twin Falls, chairs the House Commerce and Human Resources Committee. He said he has known Edmunds for a while and found him “a real asset” to the department.

“I am sorry to see him leave, but I am not surprised, given the fact that turnover does occur in these positions,” Hartgen said. “Running a state agency today is just darn hard work. You have a lot of competing lobbying from different perspectives — business, commerce, state agencies, the executive branch, the Legislature. It is not an easy task to run a state agency, particularly a large one.”

“My experience with Ken was very good,” Hartgen said. “I do not have anything negative to say about his performance. I thought he did fine.”

Also praising Edmunds’ performance was Idaho Freedom Foundation Director Wayne Hoffman, who has been critical of some Labor Department programs and spending — and of Otter’s administration as a whole. Hoffman said he was surprised, and spoke of the attention Edmunds always gave private business owners he brought by to talk about the effects of state labor policies.

“Ken was always thinking of ways to make his department function in a modern and much more free-market way,” Hoffman said. “I was really excited when he was put in that position. I did not expect him to do much because of the constraints of the job, but it turns out he had a lot to offer.”

Cynthia Sewell: 208-377-6428, @CynthiaSewell