By Robert Barron, Staff Writer
Enid News and Eagle
The Oklahoma Commission for Human Services denied an Enid senator the opportunity to speak and refused to consider an alternative plan by Enid member Mike Peck, before voting to close Northern Oklahoma Resource Center of Enid in 2015 and Southern Oklahoma Resource Center in Pauls Valley in 2014.
The commission refused to hear public comments from the standing-room-only crowd, and Chairman Wes Lane shut down state Sen. Patrick Anderson, R-Enid, as he attempted to address the panel. Anderson accused Lane of making “a mockery” of the process.
“The chairman refused to allow me to speak, to question it not being made public or provided to the Legislature. I was told I was out of order and would not be heard,” Anderson said. “I think the Legislature will definitely address this matter. This is a horrible way to operate.”
All of the Enid legislators expect some action by the Legislature to overturn or impact the action taken Thursday by the nine-member commission.
“It clearly became evident today they’ve been working on it for quite some time. They read the proposed plan to the group, they did not pass out nor provide copies to anyone, family members or guardians of clients or the employees’ association, no one but the commission members. It was clearly a long plan with several parts and not written overnight,” Anderson said. “They didn’t announce to anyone until Wednesday that the plan existed.”
The six commissioners that voted for the action to close NORCE and SORC were appointed by Gov. Mary Fallin, according to Sen. Anderson.
The three no votes, Anderson said, were from commissioners who had been appointed by Gov. Brad Henry or Gov. Frank Keating.
Anderson said commission officials did not contact any local legislators to tell them. They intended on trying to make it happen without anyone knowing what’s going on, just before he expects the commission will be dissolved next week.
Anderson said the process is operating in the dark and clearly is not good government. He thinks the Legislature will want to speak to that process, and he hopes it will reverse the decision.
“Clearly, they did not want input from anyone on this secret plan. Dr. Peck worked months on his plan, and they refused to allow him to present it as an alternative. It was unbelievable,” Anderson said
Anderson called the experience frustrating.
“They made a big effort to state the governor is not involved in this matter, when clearly we know she was. Wes Lane has been meeting with the governor about the plan as late as Monday of this week. I feel like I’ve been lied to, and the public not well served by the way this was done by the governor’s office,” he said.
Marcellius Bell, whose brother lives at NORCE, was present at the meeting. He said Peck spoke hoping to convince one or two members to change their vote and defeat the measure. Lane, former Oklahoma County district attorney, read a resolution saying the transition will be smooth and safe for everyone, Bell said.
“Did they make it safe for those children who died? If they can’t take care of that, how can they take care of this?” he said of the Oklahoma Department of Human Services.
Bell is uncertain what he will do with his brother. He said he talked with Sen. Anderson about an idea Peck originated, to have the community of Enid purchase NORCE and maintain the dental and medical clinics — along with the pharmacy — and operate it as a private facility.
“They can make money with that,” he said. “It would be good for the community of Enid.”
Bell said a waiting list for homes was discussed, and he said those with challenging disabilities will not be taken by some clinics around the state. He predicted the private facilities housing the residents will “hold the state hostage.”
State Rep. Mike Jackson, R-Enid, said after the meeting he is still angry about the way the process was conducted. He said no one in the public has reviewed the plan.
“I remember going through a process with DHS with other members of the Legislature that was eventually rejected by the House. That took a long time, and in one day they expect us to read a full plan and approve it without looking at it. It’s ridiculous. I’m very disappointed with how it went,” Jackson said.
The agenda item read: “Discussion and possible vote on a plan to close the Northern Oklahoma Resource Center at Enid and the Southern Oklahoma Resource Center at Pauls Valley and transition all residents into community-based homes.”
Jackson said legislative steps can be taken, but at present he has not had conversations about how to approach the issue. With State Question 765 looming, he thinks the DHS commission will be abolished in five days. Jackson said it is “funny” they would take this vote days before the election.
“We do have avenues available to us. I have talked with quite a few members today in terms of how it was conducted and the overall sentiment. It was conducted poorly,” Jackson said.
Fallin has made appointments in recent months, and all of them voted to close the facilities, which Jackson said means the governor pushed it.
After Fallin’s visits to SORC and NORCE, Anderson said the governor was “very supportive of the future of the NORCE facility.”
When Jackson talked to the governor’s office Wednesday, he said he learned the plan was put together by Fallin and DHS staff.
Jackson confirmed Anderson’s attempt to speak at the meeting was not allowed.
“(Lane) verbally shot down Sen. Anderson’s attempt to talk about the overall plan, even though no one in the room had a copy, other than the commissioners themselves,” Jackson said. “Transparency was not at the forefront of the DHS commission today.”
Jackson still is angry over the process.
“It was very heavy-handed,” he said.
In a press release received by the Enid News & Eagle shortly after the decision, Gov. Fallin praised the commission for their action.
Fallin’s release said the residents will be transitioned to community living arrangements that provide greater flexibility for people with disabilities. The governor’s release stated both facilities were designed for larger populations and have buildings that are vacant and condemned. Anderson said previously the condition of the buildings is the fault of the Legislature for not providing the funding to maintain them.
In the resolution passed earlier today, the commission pledged to provide assistance and support to families of NORCE and SORC throughout the transition to community homes. It also directs that no additional expenses are required to be incurred by families or residents.
Finally, the commission is asking Fallin to convene a panel of parents, professionals and state agency representatives to develop a comprehensive plan to support individuals with developmental disabilities and their families, as well as to address the state’s growing waiting list, the release said.
State Rep. John Enns, R-Enid, said the decision was “ridiculous.”
He criticized the commission and the governor for suddenly bringing up the vote.
“This is what the governor wanted all along, what she’s pushing. Why would we look at all these angles then not vote on the plan by Dr. Peck? I don’t get it,” Enns said.
However, the hardest burden will be on the residents of the two facilities and their families, Enns said.
“I daresay some will probably die because of this decision. ... Politics is playing a role. It’s not sound policy,” Enns said.
Enns said between now and 2015 something may be able to be done, and expects the next Legislature to look into it.
“It is very clear from the stories we have heard from parents and other people who serve as guardians for developmentally disabled individuals, that many residents will be traumatized and negatively impacted in other ways by the closure of these two centers,” Enns said.
Other legislators weighed in on the decision Thursday. State Rep. Lisa Billy, R-Purcell, said the commissioners erred.
“How could they vote to take these vulnerable individuals out of a care setting that has served them well?” she said. “I am shocked and angered, but now my primary concern is for the clients and their families.”
The governor’s press release referred to the facilities’ monikers circa 1907 and 1909: Pauls Valley’s name was “The State Training School for White Boys,” and the Enid facility was the “Oklahoma Institution for the Feeble Minded.”
Those have not been the names of the two facilities since the 1940s.
According to an article by Glen McIntyre of the Cherokee Strip Regional Heritage Center in 2009, the 2nd Oklahoma Legislature designated funds for the first state institution for “feeble minded” more than a century ago.
The original purpose was to care for ages 16-45. It was divided into two departments — a training school and an asylum. The original building cost $155,000 to construct, the story said.
By 1963, all state institutions for people with mental retardation were transferred to the Department of Public Welfare, which now is the Oklahoma Department of Human Services. The philosophy about who needs to be housed in a state facility has changed.
Housed at NORCE, the Robert M. Greer Center serves persons with a dual diagnosis of mental retardation and mental illness. It is operated under a contract through Liberty Health Care.
What does the future hold for NORCE? Sally Randall, NORCE director, said the state has procedures for closing centers that will be reviewed. This will not be an overnight process.
Randall said the Development Disability Service Division will work with NORCE families and staff to ensure needs are met during the transition.
“I have a very good staff,” Randall said. “We know we still have a job to do. ...We’ll continue to do what we do until someone turns the lights out.”
Enid News & Eagle staff writer Cass Rains and The Associated Press contributed to this report.