Staff exodus leads to upheaval at governor's association

Staff exodus leads to upheaval at governor's association
A steady drumbeat of staff departures at the National Governors Association (NGA) raised red flags among the group’s top leaders, setting off a two-month standoff that ended recently with the ouster of the group’s executive director.
 
In a series of phone calls between governors over the past few weeks, they discussed with growing alarm a culture of opacity at the Washington-based NGA, which has had an annual budget of about $15 million in recent years, according to federal tax filings.
 
On April 26, the entire executive committee of nine governors held a conference call and decided to force out Scott Pattison, who held the top job for nearly four years.
 
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At least one more senior NGA official is on her way out: Tiffany Shackelford, the group’s chief strategic officer and a close Pattison ally, will be leaving in the coming days.
 
The NGA’s chairman and vice chair — Montana Gov. Steve Bullock (D) and Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R), respectively — addressed the remaining staffers on Thursday to soothe frayed nerves. Bullock conferenced in from Helena; Hogan made the hour-long drive from Annapolis to be there in person.
 
“Gov. Hogan expressed his appreciation to NGA employees for all they do every day on behalf of the nation’s governors,” said Michael Ricci, Hogan’s spokesman. “He talked about how it is in the states where we set the pace for addressing the big challenges of the day, and the NGA plays an indispensable role in amplifying that work.”
 
That both governors would take time out of their day to involve themselves in the NGA is unusual for an organization in which governors typically play a hands-off role. Underscoring the crisis of leadership the group faced, both Bullock and Hogan decided to force the issue and launch a national search for new leadership just as they are also planning potential White House bids.
 
“The fact that we’ve all had to get so involved is a huge time-suck, and it’s a nightmare,” said another governor’s chief lobbyist in Washington.
 
This account is based on interviews with more than a dozen people inside and around the NGA, including staffers, directors of state lobbying offices in Washington, chiefs of staff and lobbyists who work closely with the organization. Most of those interviewed asked for anonymity to describe an organization with which they maintain professional relationships.
 
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Pattison could not be reached for comment, and a recent cell phone number is no longer in service.
 
Pattison came to the NGA in 2015, after a long tenure atop the National Association of State Budget Officers. He was well regarded for his role in advocating for state priorities, and at NGA he placed a heavy priority on the organization’s Center for Best Practices, a nonpartisan arm that teaches governors how to maneuver the levers of government.
 
But soon, longtime staffers began to depart. The NGA’s director of advocacy — the group’s chief lobbyist — retired; years later, her position still has not been filled. Other high-ranking aides left. One director of a governor’s Washington office said she attended three going-away parties in her first two months on the job.
 
Since the fall, 15 staffers had left, a remarkably high number for an organization that employs about 100 people. Some governors began to notice the staffers with whom they had corresponded for years were no longer with the NGA.
 
Several sources pointed to reviews left by current and former employees on Glassdoor, a website where workers can rate their employer. All of nine of the reviews this year mentioned problems with upper management, and just 14 percent of those who reviewed the organization said they would recommend a friend work there.
 
Some governors and their staffs were upset by the group’s annual winter meeting, held at the Marriott Marquis in Washington, near Mt. Vernon Square. It was the first time in decades the group had not held their annual meeting at the J.W. Marriott, which is closer to the White House, and some complained about technical and logistical flubs.
 
Others believed Pattison’s focus on the Center for Best Practices, rather than its lobbying arm, led the group astray from its traditional mission. The center is funded by corporations and philanthropic donors; the advocacy side is funded by dues paid by each state that is an NGA member.
 
In the weeks after the winter meeting, governors and their representatives in Washington began raising questions about staff turnover, low morale and poor financial oversight. 
 
Some members of the executive committee sent Pattison a letter seeking answers to questions about management practices. Pattison, in response, sent the executive committee a memorandum asserting he did not have to answer some of their questions.
 
That response, a second governor’s Washington representative wryly joked, went over poorly. It led to the April 26 call among governors who, alarmed by the lack of information, decided to push Pattison out and begin a search for a new executive director.
 
In the meantime, governors asked Nikki Guilford, who has worked at NGA for more than a decade, to take over on an interim basis. Guilford has agreed, though sources said she would leave by Labor Day to take over Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine’s (R) Washington office — a departure she had already planned before Pattison’s removal.
 
Guilford has deep ties to governors across the country from her time running the NGA’s management consulting arm, and even those most critical of NGA praised her as an effective leader.
 
The NGA also brought on Ben Jenkins, one of the group’s outside consultants, as its interim head of advocacy. Jenkins is unlikely to leave his consulting firm to take over the post permanently.