SALT LAKE CITY — At least a third and as many as half of the members of Gov. Gary Herbert’s cabinet are expected to be replaced in preparation for his first full term in office.
“I don’t think it’s a matter of getting tough or cleaning house. I think it’s a matter of what’s in the best interest of his goals and his priorities for the next four years,” Herbert’s chief of staff said Thursday. “It’s not an issue of people getting fired or retribution.”
Derek Miller said he and Lt. Gov. Greg Bell have been meeting with each of the 22 department heads and other appointees in the cabinet to discuss the results of a performance review started about six weeks ago.
“What we’ve been telling all the cabinet members is these aren’t careers. This is public service, and public service has a life cycle,” Miller said. “You burn yourself out doing a good job. When that life cycle is done, then it’s time for someone new to come in and do the same thing.”
He declined to discuss which cabinet members will leave their positions but said it’s likely to be between a third and half of the appointees who serve at the pleasure of the governor.
Only one cabinet member, state Insurance Commissioner Neal Gooch, told the governor’s office before the election that he planned to retire, Miller said. He said the turnover is being sought to ensure there’s a commitment to the governor’s agenda going forward.
“We expect the people who work for us to have a passion for what they do,” Miller said. Some cabinet members, he said, told him this week that “it’s time for someone else to pick up the baton and take it further.”
Herbert, who is expected to receive a report next week on what changes should be made, has raised concerns publicly about another cabinet member, John Njord, head of the Utah Department of Transportation.
In April, the governor said Njord “made a mistake” by politicizing negotiations with a wrongfully terminated employee. “He already knows my displeasure,” Herbert said then of Njord’s effort to have the employee sign a confidential letter asking the state Democratic Party to stop pushing her case.
“I’m not ready to say anything until the governor makes a final decision,” Miller said. “UDOT is being reviewed under the same framework as other agencies.”
The turnover comes after Herbert’s election to his first full four-year term. He assumed the office in 2009, when former Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. resigned to become U.S. ambassador to China. A year later, Herbert had to run for the remaining two years of Huntsman’s term.
“It’s not just a matter of who’s doing a good job versus who’s doing a bad job,” Miller said. “Probably more often it’s a matter of fresh eyes, fresh perspective, new leadership, new vision and making sure it’s aligned with the governor’s vision.”
Herbert, who served as lieutenant governor under Huntsman, has made only a few changes in the cabinet he inherited, including firing the former technology services director, Stephen Fletcher, over his handling of the massive data breach that compromised the personal medical information of an estimated 800,000 Utahns.
University of Utah political science professor Matthew Burbank said that while governors usually make changes to their cabinets after being re-elected, this level of turnover is surprising.
“It is a little unexpected he wants to change that large a portion of his political appointees,” Burbank said. “That the governor is re-evaluating the entire group and making a fairly substantial proportion of changes, that would signal there may be more to this.”
Burbank said the governor’s actions are what would be expected from a brand-new governor, not one first elected as lieutenant governor in 2004.
“You didn’t really get any sense of change in the election. That was about as low key an election as you could have,” Burbank said, referring to Herbert’s win over Democrat Peter Cooke with nearly 70 percent of the vote.
It’s more than the governor’s cabinet changing. Miller said the governor is also adding to his priorities for the next four years.
While economic development and education remain at the top of that list, Miller said the administration will also focus on what the governor sees as the state’s No. 1 challenge, population growth.
Miller said that means a “renewed emphasis on long-term planning” for dealing with the impact of more Utahns on air and water quality, transportation needs and other issues related to growth.
Those issues include recognizing the needs of Utah’s increasing minority population, including refugees, Miller said. “That brings something different into the mix that we have to be aware of.”
And there will be a new emphasis on outdoor recreation, at a time when the state has been at odds with the industry over public lands issues. “We just can’t take that for granted,” Miller said. “That’s hand in hand with our tourism industry.”
The elections results, Miller said, mean the governor is already on the right track.
“We’re not looking at a wholesale change in the governor’s agenda and priorities, but we are going through a process where we are re-evaluating,” he said. “A lot of it is just emphasizing the things that are important and not letting them be taken for granted.”
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