April 17. 2017 8:12PM

Kathy Sullivan: Experience should matter for Sununu's commissioners


At one point in my life, the governor’s office (not the current governor’s office) called to ask whether I would be interested in becoming the commissioner of a particular state agency. I said no, I didn’t think I was sufficiently qualified. Silly me! Next time we have a Democratic governor, I am asking to be made head of the Fish and Game Department. I used to own a fishing pole. That would over-qualify me in the Chris Sununu administration.

That is just a slight exaggeration. Too many of his nominations have little or no experience in the policy and regulatory disciplines of the departments they are to lead. In a couple of cases, such as the nomination of Gordon MacDonald as attorney general, his nominees have had unanimous bipartisan support and smooth Executive Council hearings. But others have been the source of controversy for the young administration.

Last week, two nominees and one recently confirmed commissioner created news.

One was Peter Kujawski, Sununu’s pick to head the Department of Environmental Services. Unquestionably, Kujawski has extensive executive experience, both as a military officer and a businessman. However, none of that experience comes in the area of environmental regulation. Kujawski testified at his hearing that the governor discussed several jobs with him in addition to DES: Labor, the Department of Resources and Economic Development, and the Division of Children and Youth Services. The one he might be qualified for, DRED, is not the one Sununu offered.

Kujawski also said that Sununu offered him the job of vice president of a private sector company relocating to New Hampshire. This raised eyebrows. What was the governor doing making job offers on behalf of a private sector company? Sununu’s spokesman later said Kujawski “misspoke,” but during his testimony, he had described the conversation in detail.

Qualified or not, give Kujawski credit for honesty. According to NHPR, at the council hearing, Kujawski admitted he had not given much thought to some major environmental issues. He also admitted that a past statement to Councilor Chris Pappas in support of Northern Pass was not based on deep technology, science or thought.

On Monday, Sununu withdrew Kujawski’s nomination.

Equally honest about his shortcomings was Franklin Mayor Ken Merrifield, Sununu’s nominee for Labor Commissioner. He testified that he was not going to pretend to be an expert on “all these matters,” although he has been studying since Sununu nominated him, and will continue to do so. When asked about how he came to be before the council, Merrifield continued to be candid, saying that he had hoped to become a commissioner since graduate school.

But the real controversy came when Merrifield said he wanted to stay on as mayor through October. What was Sununu thinking here? Does he think that Labor does not need a full-time commissioner? Why not appoint someone with a little more experience who could start right away?

Then there is Frank Edelblut, New Hampshire’s Betsy DeVos. With only two months of on-the-job training, Edelblut decided to re-organize the department to give himself more authority. By statute, it is the Board of Education’s responsibility to review the department’s programs and activities, and to make recommendations to the commissioner. Edelblut, however, circumvented the statutory lines of authority. He found a friendly Republican state senator, John Reagan, to introduce legislation giving Edelblut carte blanche to reorganize. In addition, Edelblut would take over the statutory responsibilities of the deputy commissioner of education. When asked why he was filing the amendment, Reagan said, “It’s a new commissioner and he’s a professional manager and this is what he wants to do.”

That statement is no reason for the Legislature to abdicate its responsibility to thoughtfully develop legislation and to solicit public input. And there will be no public input on this proposal, as it is being attached to a bill that already had its public hearing.

I do not know why Sununu thinks it is in New Hampshire’s best interest to appoint commissioners with little, if any, pertinent experience. However, if Edelblut’s controversies are a preview of what Sununu’s other unproven commissioners will do, Sununu may find these appointments are not in his own political interest.

Kathy Sullivan is the former chairman of the New Hampshire Democratic Party.