HELENA — Gov. Steve Bullock announced six of his first-term cabinet members would be leaving and named some of their replacements during a Friday press conference at the Capitol.
“Since I took office four years ago, I've been blessed with a team of talented people,” Bullock said, highlighting the achievements of each agency leader as he named them. “Every large organization goes through change and state government is no different.”
The retirement of Department of Corrections Director Mike Batista, who has worked decades in law enforcement and state government, was the first announced departure. Bullock commended Batista’s vision to create a clinical services division that standardized and improved care across facilities. He thanked Batista for his leadership of a state re-entry task force that has spent the past four years finding ways to reduce recidivism.
“Mike’s efforts have been groundbreaking at so many levels,” Bullock said.
Deputy Director Loraine Wodnick will step in as interim director while a national search is conducted for Batista’s replacement over the next few months.
Department of Public Health and Human Services Director Richard Opper also is leaving after four years at the helm of the state’s largest agency. He previously led the Department of Environmental Quality for eight years under former Gov. Brian Schweitzer.
Opper said he will retire and plans to travel with his wife. He pointed to the expansion of Medicaid in the state, also known as the HELP Act, in 2015 as one of his department's top accomplishments under his leadership.
“We exceeded expectations” in terms of how successful the expansion was, he said. By Nov. 15 this year, 61,233 had enrolled under the program.
When he first was appointed to the health agency, some had criticized the move, noting his expertise better fit the DEQ.
“It’s going to be overwhelming for anyone that comes in,” Opper said at the time. The choice of who led the department could have been made on subject matter experience or management experience, he said, and Bullock chose management experience. “I’ll leave it to other people to judge the outcome,” he said.
Sheila Hogan, former director of the Department of Administration, will take over at the Department of Public Health and Human Services.
John Lewis, a former aide to former U.S. Sen. Max Baucus, D-Montana, was appointed to lead the Department of Administration. Lewis lost a bid for Congress in 2014 against U.S. Rep. Ryan Zinke.
Also leaving are Fish, Wildlife and Parks Director Jeff Hagener, who Bullock had persuaded to return from retirement; Economic Development Director John Rogers, who led the creation of the Montana Business Navigator; Commerce Director Meg O'Leary, who championed Main Street Montana Program; and Department of Agriculture Director Ron de Yong, who Bullock said “put Montana chickpeas on the map” by partnering with farmers to expand pulse crop growth and processing capability. Pulse crops are legumes that are harvested for the dry seed, like chickpeas and lentils.
Bullock Spokesman Tim Crowe said the governor is reviewing his options for those openings and hopes to fill them by the end of the month.
Bullock had been in conversations with all of his appointed directors since last month about whether they want to serve another four years. High-level staffing changes are not unusual when officials are re-elected.
When Schweitzer, a Democrat, took office in 2004, he kept two cabinet officials who had been appointed by his Republican predecessor, Judy Martz. At the start of his second term, only two cabinet heads were replaced: Anna Whiting-Sorrell took over for Joan Miles at the Department of Public Health and Human Services and Joe Maurier replaced Hagener at Fish, Wildlife and Parks.
The Associated Press also contributed to this report.