NH Commissioners: Here Today, Gone Tomorrow

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Garry Rayno is InDepthNH.org's State House Bureau Chief. He is pictured in the press room at the State House in Concord.


CONCORD – One of the complaints about New Hampshire’s two-year governor’s term is he or she is saddled with the last governor’s department heads when the office changes hands.

The issue is more pronounced when a governor is elected after a long run by the other party.

Democratic governors occupied the corner office for 18 of the last 20 years before Gov. Chris Sununu took over in 2017, so he inherited a litany of Democratically appointed department heads.

Every governor wants senior managers to share his or her political philosophy and Sununu has moved quickly to reshape the governmental landscape after 12 consecutive years of Democratic governors.

In the last two weeks, two department heads have either not sought renomination — a nice way of saying Sununu told them he would not renominate them — or failed to win key support for another term.

Health and Human Services Commissioner Jeffrey Meyers announced last week he did not want to be renominated for what most insiders recognize as an overwhelming and thankless job. In his case he may really want a change.

Meyers, whose term ends in January, was a good soldier and did the governor’s bidding as lawmakers worked on the budget earlier this year.

But those who have known him for a long time had to believe it must have been difficult for him to do Sununu’s bidding when he had served in many capacities under Democratic bosses like Governors John Lynch and Maggie Hassan and Senate President Sylvia Larsen.

And two weeks ago the Fish and Game Commission told executive director Glenn Normandeau he did not have the backing of the majority of members to be renominated to a position he has held since 2008.

Since Normandeau first became executive director, the commission membership has changed significantly. Nine of the current 11-member commission were nominated by Sununu leaving only two members with more than three years of experience.

Meyers and Normandeau are the latest of many department heads leaving state government service with their term’s expiration under the current governor.

With few exceptions, when department heads’ four- or five-year terms end, Sununu has not reappointed them, and in several cases, after more than a decade in office.

Some of the replacements come with long histories of work for the Republican Party or of advocating a conservative GOP agenda like Attorney General Gordon MacDonald, whose long association with right wing causes and politicians contributed to the Democratically controlled Executive Council denial of his confirmation to be Supreme Court Chief Justice.

As Attorney General, MacDonald replaced Joseph Foster, a former state Senator and Representative before becoming the state’s highest law enforcement official.

Other new department heads include Sununu’s rival for the 2016 GOP gubernatorial nomination, Frank Edelblut, a one-term Representative who Sununu tapped to be Education Commissioner replacing Virginia Barry, a career educator.

The governor not only changed the head of the department, he also changed the head of the New Hampshire Board of Education.

Sununu did not reappoint Tom Raffio to the board he led for a decade, and instead named former Union Leader editorial writer Drew Cline to head the board.

Sununu tapped then House Speaker Shawn Jasper to become the new Department of Agriculture, Markets and Food Commissioner replacing long-time farmer Lorraine Merrill, who had served in the post for 10 years.

And Sununu replaced one-time House Democratic Leader Jim Craig, with former Franklin Mayor and GOP activist Ken Merrifield to lead the Labor Department.

One of the most important positions in state government is Administrative Services Commissioner who oversees state contracts, personnel matters, public works projects, accounting, budgetary issues and risk management.

Sununu tapped long-time head of the the Josiah Bartlett Center for Public Policy, a conservative think tank largely funded by the Koch brothers, Charlie Arlinghaus for the post.

He replaced Vicki Quiran, who held a number of administrative positions in state government before taking over Administrative Services under Hassan.

Sununu tapped then Public Utilities Commissioner Robert Scott, to replace Department of Environmental Services Commissioner Thomas Burack who held the post for 10 years. Scott worked under Burack when he led the Air Resources Division before moving to the PUC.

Insurance Commissioner Roger Sevigny held the post for 16 years under both Republican and Democratic governors, but Sununu replaced him when his term expired with John Elias.

Former Hampton Police Chief William Wrenn served 12 years as Corrections Commissioner appointed originally by Lynch. Sununu nominated and the Executive Council confirmed Helen Hanks after Wrenn resigned at the end of his third term.

John Barthelmes replaced Dick Flynn who was Department of Safety Commissioner since the Peterson administration, when Lynch had a Democratically controlled Executive Council. That was 12 years ago.

Earlier this year Barthelmes “announced” he did not want a fourth term in charge of the state law enforcement and safety agency.

Sununu tapped one-time head of the State Police Robert Quinn for the post. Sununu also replaced long-time Fire Marshal William Degnan in that agency.

In his first budget proposal in 2017, Sununu proposed reconfiguring the Department of Resources and Economic Development with the Department of Cultural Resources. Ironically, Sununu’s father, John H. Sununu, had consolidated several departments when he was governor three decades earlier to create DRED.

Under the reorganization, two agencies were created, the Department of Business and Economic Affairs, and the Department of Natural and Cultural Resources.

Jeffrey Rose was commissioner of DRED but became head of natural and cultural resources while Taylor Caswell was appointed to head of business and economic affairs.

Sununu replaced Rose with Sarah Stewart when his term expired.

He also replaced Department of Revenue Administration Commissioner John Beardmore when his term expired with Lindsey Stepp. Beardmore had been Lynch’s budget director and served in the Legislative Budget Assistant’s Office.

And Sununu nominated chair of the PUC Martin Honigberg to be a Superior Court justice when his term expired on the PUC and replaced him with Dianne Martin.

Honigberg chaired the Site Evaluation Committee that turned down the Northern Pass Transmission project. Sununu criticized the decision.

Martin was a longtime staffer at the Attorney General’s Office before taking over as the state’s chief utility regulator.

Those are most of the major changes at the top of state agencies since Sununu became governor.

No Change

However, the governor did renominate four commissioners to continue in their roles.

Department of Employment Security Commissioner George Copadis was renominated to his post by Sununu this year. Copadis has served as commissioner since 2012, and was Department of Labor Commissioner before that.

Sununu also renominated Liquor Commissioner Joseph Mollica in 2017 to continue running the state’s revenue producing agency. Mollica has served on the commission since 2010.

Sununu also renominated Banking Commissioner and former state Sen. Jerry Little to head that agency this year.

Little was press secretary to Sununu’s father and the former head of the NH Banking Association before running for the state Senate.

And Sununu renominated Department of Information Technology Commissioner Denis Goulet for his second term this year.

Up in the Air

There are two other department heads who will soon learn their fate.

Department of Transportation Commissioner Victoria Sheehan’s term expires Dec. 3.

Sometime soon you might hear she does not want to be nominated for a second term, and who could blame her as her agency has been trying to cope with declining revenue as then gas tax returns fewer dollars every year with more and more electric and hybrid vehicles and higher fuel efficiency.

Also Lottery Commission Executive Director Charlie McIntyre is in holdover status. His term expired July 1. 

There are not many more major changes Sununu can make in agency leadership and he certainly has remade his cabinet of department heads.

Many people will be watching to see who Sununu decides will replace Meyers to lead Health and Human Services.

Sununu said a nationwide search will be conducted, but with Meyers leaving in January, a new commissioner may not be chosen by that time.

Usually the assistant commissioner would be named interim commissioner, but that position is vacant.

There are three associate commissioners, all nominated by Sununu, so one of the three may surface as the interim head of the agency.

Meyers replaced Nick Toumpas who held the position from 2008 until 2015, and was assistant commissioner at the department from 2002.

Toumpas’s tenure was longer than most as head of the state’s largest agency. 

Garry Rayno may be reached at garry.rayno@yahoo.com.

Distant Dome by veteran journalist Garry Rayno explores a broader perspective on the State House and state happenings for InDepthNH.org. Over his three-decade career, Rayno covered the NH State House for the New Hampshire Union Leader and Foster’s Daily Democrat. During his career, his coverage spanned the news spectrum, from local planning, school and select boards, to national issues such as electric industry deregulation and Presidential primaries. Rayno lives with his wife Carolyn in New London. InDepthNH.org is New Hampshire’s only nonprofit, online news outlet dedicated to holding government accountable and giving voice to marginalized people, places and ideas. 

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