The Strange, Continuing Case of Ohio’s MIA Workforce Deputy Director

OhioNews Bureau

ONB COLUMBUS: The story ONB broke last week about the sudden and strange disappearance of Linda O’Connor from her high-profile, high-paying perch atop policy program at the Ohio Department of Jobs and Family Services (ODJFS)only grows more intriguing and mysterious with time.

For someone like O’Connor, who had worked her way up the professional ladder of state service, receiving performance accolades and stellar recommendations along the way, and who had been hired into the slot of Deputy Director of the Office of Workforce Development as recently as April of 2007, to suddenly resign from a $98,280 (Deputy Director 6) job without giving at least two weeks notice seems totally out of character and hard to believe at a minimum and unimaginable and preposterous at most.

Dear Ms Jones-Kelley

This letter is to inform you that I am resigning my position of Deputy Director of the Office of Workforce Development, effective 12/29/2007. I will return to the department all office keys, building passes, identification card, credit card or any other item which is the property of ODJFS.

Thank you for the opportunity to serve the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services.

Sincerely,

Linda O’Connor

Responding to O’Connor’s sudden, terse resignation, Bouder attributed these cold and seemingly disingenous words on O'Connors resignation to ODJFS Director Jones-Kelley: "Linda O’Connor resigned from ODJFS and we wish her the best in all her future endeavors.” Unfeeling one liners like this clearly hide paragraphs if not pages of what's not being said.

WHAT'S THE REST OF THE STORY?

It begs the question of why such a well-qualified, high-performing, well-thought of person who both knew the ropes of state government and built a few of her own over the years and who was recruited for her position for these very reasons would be so unceremoniously separated from a position whose primary responsibility is to "promote job creation and to advance Ohio's workforce...achieved through teamwork at all levels of the organization," according to ODJFS' own Website.

Clearly, there’s more to this story than ODJFS officials are letting on. But whether O’Connor can be found and whether she will comment on what happened to her if she is found, is a matter of great speculation.

This letter was one document among many ONB received through a public records request made to ODJFS last week through the department’s director of communications, Scarlett Bouder.

Ms Bouder sent 47 pages of information containing the contents of O’Connor’s personnel file at ODJFS, with contact-specific information redacted. ONB has been unable to contact O’Connor for comment, or find anyone who knows where to find her. Which is why her disappearance from a job she was so well suited for and for which she had received due plaudits for by Gov. Strickland and others is so puzzling.

Her personnel file contained performance evaluations and other work-related documents that traced her rise to prominence through the ranks of state government at various departments. From O'Connor's humble beginnings in the human resources department at Lazarus, she worked her way into state government, where her work on workforce-related initiatives in the Ohio Department of Development, where she supervised nine industrial training program regions before being promoted to manager of the industrial training program itself, and then at the Ohio Department of Human Services which merged with Employment Services to form today’s Department of Jobs and Family Services, she was generally complimented on the quality and quantity of her work.

Bouder confirmed news ONB had learned earlier about the shifting of programs like the Ohio Skills Bank, which came was contained in O’Connor’s job description , to the Ohio Board of Regents (OBOR), taking a couple staffers along for the ride.

Bouder confirmed that Terry Thomas, a former lobbyist for the Ohio Association of Community Colleges who interviewed and hired O’Connor in later April, will be moving to the OBOR, under the direction of Chancellor Eric Fingerhut, a former Cleveland Congressman, two-term State Senator and one-time candidate for Governor, who Governor Ted Strickland appointed to a new post in his push to take control of the OBOR early in his first year.

"The decision has been made to move Mr. Thomas but details related to this have not yet been determined or finalized," Bouder wrote in an email.

Sources familiar with Ohio’s workforce development program told ONB that Thomas, who came on board with the change in administrations, was seen by many as having strengths regarding education issues but little experience with regard to workforce development and family services issues, which are core to the department's mission.

The OSB RFP, issued in December to workforce investment boards who were to respond to it with what they would need to implement the program and work with the Governor’s office on the employer and education councils in each economic region and which was supposed to be done quickly, was suddenly and without notice pulled the day before the proposals were due in Columbus, with no reason given but a promise to get back to everyone, ONB was told. ODJFS has yet to “get back” to anyone.

WHAT'S GOING ON AND WHY NOW?

With sudden and unexplained RFP terminations coming in close proximity to tight-lipped, keep-the-lid on firings of skilled, experienced officials of the caliber of O’Connor, there is a growing sense of fear among some in the workforce development community about what’s going on and why, and whether more troubles loom ahead. Contrasting and comparing what has happened with what is likely to happen, ONB was told that some observers feel more attention and energy in the Strickland administration is going into jockeying for position and kissing of backsides than performance. This state of affairs is troubling for some given the state of affairs for the state’s jobs picture.

MORE TROOPS ON THE MOVE

Tom Fellrath, another ODJFSer, will also be transferred to OBOR to implement the Ohio Skills Bank (OSB). Bouder said OSB and its mission, which will remain the same at OBOR as it was at ODJFS, will “be broadened to connect with the related agency initiatives – articulation and transfer, ‘stackable certificates,’ and the transfer of adult education and training assets from Education to the new University System of Ohio.”

According to Bouder, the reason for moving OSB to OBOR was based on its “expertise and strong relationships with systemic (versus transitional) approaches to education and training as well as the institutions that best address the population served by OSB.” She said the decision – made January 5th at a meeting of the Working Group on Talent and the Workforce which consists of the Cabinet leadership of Development, Regents, Education and ODJFS – was based on the need to increase the “synergy that could be achieved through a collaboration of OSB with the transfer of adult career-technical education and ABLE (adult basic literacy).”

Another program O’Connor oversaw, The Disability Navigator Program, which implements US Department of Labor grant funds that assist persons with disabilities access One-Stop services, is “moving forward as planned,” Bouder said. She said five staff are assigned to coordinate this task and that seven local areas have agreed to pilot this project, and two additional local areas are in discussions with ODJFS.

ODJFS Glossary:

Articulation and Transfer - the portability of equivalent course work from one institution to another.

Stackable Certificates - This TurnAround Ohio initiative is intended to improve the education and skills of low-income working adults in Ohio by creating a series of education and work-related Stackable Certificates to help them pursue higher education.

Transfer of Adult Education and Training - effective January 1, 2009, Adult Basic Literacy (ABLE) and adult career-technical education will move from the Department of Education to the Ohio Board of Regents/University System of Ohio.

John Michael Spinelli is a former Ohio Statehouse government and political reporter and business columnist. He now serves as the OhioNews Bureau Chief for ePluribus Media Journal. Find ONB archives here.

If readers have a news tip or story idea about Ohio politics or government, contact the OhioNews Bureau at: ohionews@epluribusmedia.org

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