Prominent veterans have been critical of Gov. Gary Herbert’s plan to reorganize the Utah Department of Veterans Affairs — and put an economic development expert in charge — fearing it will erode the state’s ability to help those who served their country.
The reorganization, which is spelled out in legislation still being written on Capitol Hill, would give the department another mission: working with military installations threatened by federal budget cuts, such as Hill Air Force Base, Dugway Proving Ground and Tooele Army Depot.
The bill, to be carried by Rep. Greg Hughes, R-Draper, would also weaken the role played by the Veterans Advisory Council in picking the executive director.
On Monday, council chairman Frank Maughan said combining economic development and caring for veterans “is a span of control that’s almost undoable. I haven’t talked to a single veteran from 94 to 24 who thinks this is a good idea.”
But after a Wednesday afternoon meeting with Hughes and Mike Mower, the governor’s deputy chief of staff, Maughan agreed to join them in signing a statement that reads, “We are confident this bill will strengthen the department and further our mission to support Utah’s veterans and their families.”
W.L. “Bill” Dunlap, commander of the Utah Department of the American Legion also attended the meeting and signed the statement.
But Dunlap said in an interview Wednesday evening that time will tell whether it’s good for veterans to combine veterans affairs with military affairs.
“That’s one of the those things we’re not going to know for a couple years,” the Vietnam veteran said. “It’s doable…. [but] ask me in two years.”
Maughan, also a Vietnam veteran, agreed. “You don’t know until you put it into practice,” he said.
“I’m a pragmatist,” Maughan added Wednesday evening. “There are some fights you go into knowing that things are not going to go your way but it’s important to make the effort. We have done everything we can to be able to represent the 167,000 veterans in this state.”
Utah disbanded its Veterans Affairs Department in 1978, after the Vietnam War had been over for several years, and it wasn’t until the mid-1990s that it was restored as a small office. It gradually became a division of another agency and in 2007, Gov. Jon Huntsman made it a department and its director, Terry Schow, joined the governor’s cabinet. Utah has an estimated 175,000 veterans.
Herbert announced in December that Schow will retire in June and signaled that he had picked his replacement, Gary Harter, a retired Army colonel who headed up the military cluster in the Governor’s Office of Economic Development.
That move angered Maughan and other veterans, who say that the governor came close to violating state statute. The Veterans Advisory Council, by law, is to whittle a list of applicants down and recommend finalists to the governor.
The new legislation would give the governor the right to pick his own director, Maughan said.
The goal of the reorganization is improving coordination and outreach, and to “optimize all resources” for veterans, said Ally Isom, Herbert’s deputy chief of staff.
“Anyone who speaks with Gary Harter quickly learns this is his focus and this change is not only a good thing, but the right thing for veterans and all military personnel,” she said in a statement.
Harter has not formally been tapped as executive director, and has been working this winter as the governor’s adviser on military and veterans affairs. “Would I be interested? Absolutely,” Harter said Tuesday evening. “The process that’s laid out currently in statute has to go through the Veterans Advisory Council. I’m not going to usurp the provision in statute.”
The new configuration of the department “is not a diminishment. It’s an expansion,” he said.
Jobs are the big issue on the minds of many returning veterans, and they’ll have a better chance nailing civilian jobs on bases if the department is in close contact with military installations, he said.
Harter, who was commander at the Army’s Dugway Proving Ground from 2002 to 2005, also wants to encourage more of those leaving active duty to stay or move to Utah to take advantage of services such as job training, education and health care. “We see many synergies we can deliver today and in the future,” said Harter. “The vision I’ve established in the past six weeks … is for Utah to be recognized across the nation by veterans as great place to live.”
Harter notes that the governor’s proposed budget includes two new positions in Veterans Affairs. Another piece of legislation, SB126, also calls for a new Veterans Affairs employee to coordinate with other state agencies serving veterans. The latter was proposed by the Legislature’s Veterans Reintegration Task Force.
Not all veterans oppose the governor’s plan; Harter says many have told him it’s a “terrific” idea.
Veteran Brian Garrett, who serves on the state’s Veterans Advisory Council, supported the bill before Wednesday’s meeting, and he was the third veteran asked to sign the statement. He said the new approach is “an opportunity to chink away at the staggering unemployment rate for veterans.”
He added: “By posturing early and well and being efficient, it gives us more to say we’re doing as a community to support the military and veterans. This is out-of-the-box.”
Garrett also believes that the move elevates the importance of veterans affairs by linking it with a vital part of Utah’s economy, the military. Otherwise, “There’s no telling what the next governor would do,” he said.
He was among a quorum of council members who met with the governor earlier this month in what appears to have been a violation of Utah’s Open and Public Meetings Act.
Maughan requested the meeting with the governor, but said it didn’t occur to him to post a public notice or keep minutes, as the law requires. “We weren’t advised that it had to be an open meeting, and certainly he (the governor) should have known,” Maughan said.
The governor’s office confirmed the meeting occurred, but the governor’s calendar only showed that Maughan and his guests were coming — not a majority of the council.
Some veterans remain unconvinced of the wisdom of the governor’s plan. Dennis Howland, a former commander of the state’s Veterans of Foreign Wars, said it’s a mistake to merge supporting military installations with serving veterans.
Veterans’ objections, he said, are not just a matter of loyalty to Schow, who he described as “a man who has dedicated his entire life to serving veterans.” The governor initially asked Schow to retire in December, but allowed him to remain until June to oversee construction of new veterans nursing homes in Ivins and Payson.
“There was no problem bringing Harter on, if he wants to place economic development (for military) as a priority,” said Howland. “But you’re talking to an orange salesman about apples.”
He added: “We’re going to go back to the dark ages again and vets are going to have to scratch for everything they get.”