Jim Kurtenbach declares victory, exits as state agency leader

Jim Kurtenbach will step down as director of the Iowa Department of Administrative Services after only eight months on the job. In so doing, he will avoid an Iowa Senate confirmation fight he probably would have lost.

In a buzzword-filled resignation letter published by the Cedar Rapids Gazette, Kurtenbach told Governor Kim Reynolds,

We have made significant accomplishments over the past year, including the implementation of a culture of customer success, collaboration among our business enterprises, clear and consistent communication with all departments, the implementation of customer satisfaction surveys, and improved director communication through our directors' roundtable discussions.

I am proud that we have improved the culture of this department in a manner that is customer-focused and outcome driven.

With these achievements in place, now is an appropriate time for me to return to life as a private citizen and to new professional challenges.

Kurtenbach's early departure fueled speculation that he or Reynolds had been warned Iowa Senate Democrats were unlikely to confirm him. Nominees need support from at least two-thirds of state senators (34 out of 50). Republicans hold 32 of the seats in the upper chamber. Most of the governor's appointees are easily confirmed, but every year, a handful run into trouble.

Speaking to the Des Moines Register on February 24, Senate Minority Leader Janet Petersen said, "I had some concerns about his qualifications for the position, but I assume it was something between him and the governor. I hadn’t sent her any smoke signals or anything like that."

In a statement provided to Bleeding Heartland on February 25, Petersen elaborated,

Because Senate Democrats had not discussed Kurtenbach’s appointment yet, I was surprised to hear about his resignation, especially knowing Governor Reynolds had personally recruited him for the job.

Kurtenbach would have faced an uphill battle. I met with him shortly after he started his job, and shared my concerns about the Department’s role in dealing with sexual harassment, collective bargaining, and procurement. I did not hear back from him about whether he was implementing changes to address our concerns.

Maybe the Governor is realizing she needs someone running the Department who can help her manage the fires she’s got going on throughout her administration that are expected to cost taxpayers millions of dollars. The cases at Glenwood, Department of Revenue, Cherokee, and her ongoing defense of Governor Branstad in the Godfrey discrimination case are just a drop in the bucket.

Reynolds said this week she will conduct a national search for a new leader for the agency, which handles human resources, procurement, and accounting on behalf of the state. She should have done so last year after the previous director Janet Phipps failed to win Senate confirmation.

Kurtenbach does have an accounting background--in fact, he's a tenured Iowa State University professor in that field. But he lacked relevant experience in Human Resources, and he was involved in questionable hiring and managerial decisions as ISU's vice president and chief information officer.

The governor would also do well to appoint a manager with less of a partisan profile than Kurtenbach. State law requires the Department of Administrative Services director to stay out of political party committees and other partisan organizations. Kurtenbach has complied with that provision, but he was deeply involved with the Republican Party of Iowa in the past.

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