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Panel picks new state ombudsman favored by governor

A committee charged with selecting the next state ombudsman finally made its decision, but not before the process became so mired in politics that it left a sour taste in the mouths of some of the panel’s members.

After meeting for a year, the Ombudsman-Citizens Aide Selection Committee recommended Feb. 8 to appoint Dennis Wells, the former city manager of Williams, to the post. Although the final vote was nearly unanimous, some members are questioning whether the best candidate will get the job.

This was the first time that the committee had to find a new ombudsman, as Patrick Shanahan, the state’s first ombudsman, was termed out of the office last year after serving three five-year terms.

“It’s a challenge, because this is the first time going through this, and it seems to be designed so that unless all parties are on board, no one’s getting anywhere,” said Steve Urie, R-Gilbert, who chairs the committee. “But is that the genius of the system, or is it a flaw?”

Urie and Rep. Lela Alston, D-Phoenix, both wanted to recommend the current acting ombudsman, Joanne MacDonnell, for the permanent appointment. But Urie said the Governor’s Office pushed back against MacDonnell in favor of Wells, which planted some doubts in his mind about the supposedly apolitical committee.

“They’re fighting so hard for Dennis Wells – what is the real agenda behind it? What I feel is the undertow is that he will be beholden to the governor. I think the first thing he would do is fire Joanne, and then the Legislature wouldn’t have any representation in its own agency,” Urie told Arizona Capitol Times last month.

The ombudsman-citizens’ aide fields citizen complaints and inquiries about state government and its agencies, boards and commissions. The office’s duties range from pointing a citizen to the right office to conducting an investigation into a state agency or public official that rejects a public records request.

MacDonnell withdrew her application last week. Although she declined to answer questions about what drove her decision, both Urie and Alston said that she had told them she was concerned about how political and contentious the process had become.

“She told me that she values the job and the office, (but) she didn’t want to cause a fight, which I can respect,” Alston said.

With MacDonnell’s withdrawal, Alston said it became apparent to her that the committee was “stacked” in favor of Gov. Jan Brewer. When the committee met Feb. 7 to recommend Wells, Alston cast the only opposing vote.

Now that the committee has voted, a bill will be introduced to appoint Wells. Under state law, the bill will have to receive approval from two-thirds of both the House and Senate and be signed by Brewer.

Alston said she’s worried that, because the Governor’s Office pushed for his appointment, Wells may have a conflict of interest when it comes to carrying out the duties of ombudsman. Since the agencies that the ombudsman may end up looking into are agencies managed by the executive branch, the governor may put pressure on him to not find them at fault, she said.

“Maybe he’ll be pure as snow,” she said. “But they pushed so hard, they rigged the committee in favor of this one guy.”

Gubernatorial spokesman Matthew Benson wouldn’t speak to the process or whether the governor favored any candidate in particular. But he said the governor was “comfortable” with the selection and that Wells was “a man of integrity” who would be unbiased when it came to carrying out the duties of ombudsman.

Urie said he shares Alston’s concerns, and said he will be examining what input the Governor’s Office has, and should have, in the selection process.

When the agency of the Ombudsman-Citizens’ Aide was created, Urie said that then-Gov. Fife Symington would only agree to create the selection committee if he and future governors were represented.

But because the ombudsman investigates executive agencies and is accountable to the Legislature, Urie said it might be better to remove or minimize the governor’s influence in the process.

“Back then, it was the golden rule: whoever had the gold, made the rules,” he said. “But is that the best way to do it? We’ll have to really take a look at that.”

Any changes to the process would have to be introduced through legislation and signed by the governor, however. And not all committee members think Wells may have a conflict of interest.

Senate President Steve Pierce, R-Prescott, said he has known Wells a long time and thinks that he was the best candidate for the position regardless of how governor may have felt about him.

“We should have done this a month ago,” Pierce said. “I know Dennis, I’ve known him a long time. He’s a good man. He’ll do a good job.”

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