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Qualifications of new welfare administrator called into question

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By Sean Whaley, Nevada News Bureau: For the second time in two years questions are being raised about the qualifications of Diane Comeaux, a top state human services administrator, to do her job.

The director of the agency said he has complete faith in her abilities.

Mike Willden has appointed Comeaux, who currently serves as the administrator of the Division of Child and Family Services (DCFS), to the administrator position over the Division of Welfare and Supportive Services (DWSS). The appointment will occur in early 2012.

Willden, director of the Nevada Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), said Comeaux’s experience is “pretty much unmatchable when it comes to administration.”

But Comeaux does not have a college degree. The state law listing the qualifications for the position says a college degree is required.

Nevada Child and Family Services Administrator Diane Comeaux

Nevada Child and Family Services Administrator Diane Comeaux

Willden acknowledged that Nevada Revised Statutes could be interpreted to mean that a college degree is required for Comeaux’s new position, but he said her administrative experience makes her qualified for the appointment.

Comeaux’s current position does not require a college degree but questions were raised about her qualifications for the job in an article published in November 2009 by the Nevada News Bureau.

In addition to her current position which she has held since June of 2008, Comeaux also worked as the deputy administrator of Medicaid and as the deputy administrator at Child and Family Services.

“Altogether she’s been 10 years in top ranked positions in DHHS,” Willden said. “And so, no bones, Diane doesn’t have a degree but she has years of experience as a state executive, and running DCFS is every bit as difficult and responsible as DWSS.”

State law regarding the top welfare position says that the administrator must be selected based on training, experience, and interest in the field; be a graduate from an accredited college; have at least three years of administrative experience; and possess qualities of leadership. The job description was changed by the Nevada Legislature in 2005.

But Willden said he has consulted with the state Human Resource Management Division and it was the interpretation of the agency that all of the listed requirements could be considered in making an appointment and that not all of the qualifications had to be met.

The legislative intent of Assembly Bill 13 of the 2005 session, a measure sought by DHHS to open up the applicant pool for the welfare position, also makes this clear, he said. Willden said he has not sought out a formal legal opinion on the question of Comeaux’s eligibility.

Minutes of a hearing on the bill in the Assembly Health and Human Services Committee in 2005 include this exchange:

“So the main gist of the bill is to broaden it so that you can have more people to pick from?” asked then-Assemblywoman Sheila Leslie, D-Reno.

“That’s correct,” said then-welfare administrator Nancy Ford. “Currently the statute says you have to have three years of experience running a public welfare agency, which is pretty restrictive. You also have the catchall ‘or equivalent training and experience.’ But it is pretty restrictive. This would help liberalize it to make our pool of candidates bigger.”

Willden said: “Yes, we’re interested in a college degree, but that has to be balanced with other training, experience, those types of things.”

Comeaux’s experience is worth more than a college degree, he said.

Willden also said that while the appointment of Comeaux is permanent, she is expected to serve in the job for only a brief period to assist with a couple of major initiatives the agency needs to accomplish in the next year. Comeaux is expected to retire before the 2013 legislative session begins, he said.

Comeaux could not be reached for comment for this story.

She is replacing Romaine Gilliland, who has announced he will retire early next year.

Comeaux has her supporters.

Lisa Ruiz-Lee, interim director of the Clark County Department of Family Services, describes Comeaux as an “extraordinary public servant” in the six years they have worked together. Comeaux has worked collaboratively with Clark and Washoe counties and other jurisdictions to improve the delivery of child welfare services, she said.

“And so I think that is one of Diane’s strengths, is that she really focuses on building solid, collaborative relationships and helping people to move forward in a consensus based, togetherness kind of a feel, and I think she does a great job at that,” Ruiz-Lee said.

Comeaux has tremendous expertise around public welfare, public service and managing government, she said. She will carry these same strengths into the Welfare Division arena, Ruiz-Lee said.

Assemblywoman April Mastroluca, D-Henderson, said she has found Comeaux to be a professional in their work together on child welfare issues. While deferring to Willden on the appointment, she said: “I have faith in Mike and his ability and if he has chosen Diane as the best person for the job then I don’t see a reason to question that if he has the backing that he needs from HR (Human Resources) to be able to do that.”

Willden said he picked Comeaux because of two major challenges facing the division in the coming year. One is the need for a new information technology project because of the new federal health care law, he said. A request for proposals for the project is going out shortly.

“Diane’s experience has been excellent over the years with regard to IT systems,” Willden said.

The other challenge is the fiscal administration of the welfare agency, he said.

“And Diane has a tremendous skill set there,” Willden said.

“So when I looked around as to what we might want to do, open that up and recruit again or look within at the talent we have, it was pretty clear to me that at least for the next year, it would very critical to have someone that knows what’s going on in IT and fiscal within the department issues,” he said. “So Diane was head and shoulders above.”

Amber Howell, currently deputy administrator at the Division of Child and Family Services, is being appointed as acting administrator of the agency until a search for a permanent replacement is completed, Willden said.

Audio clips:

HHS Director Mike Willden says Comeaux does not have a degree but has years of experience as a state executive:

12-12-11Willden1 :17 responsible as DWSS.”

Willden says a college degree has value but has to be balanced with training and experience:

121211Willden2 :10 types of things.”

Willden says Comeaux fits the bill for the challenges facing the welfare division:

121211Willden3 :25 and shoulders above.”

Assemblywoman April Mastroluca says she has faith in Willden to make the appointment to the position:

121311Mastroluca :15 to do that.”

Lisa Ruiz-Lee, interim director of the Clark County Department of Family Services, says Comeaux builds solid, collaborative relationships:

121311Ruiz-Lee :16 job at that.”

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