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UPDATE: State Forecast Council either has hired or will hire a new director just as soon as it can have a public meeting

Post by Peter Callaghan / The News Tribune on Sep. 4, 2012 at 10:18 am |
September 4, 2012 9:45 am

The press release from the state Office of the Economic and Revenue Forecast Council today announces that the acting director is the new director.

Steve Lerch has been filling since the state’s top economist, Arun Raha, returned to the private sector in January. Lerch was on loan from the Washington State Investment Board and led the council staff through the last two quarterly forecasts.

This was his second stint as an interim director, serving the same role before Raha was hired in 2008. He has a doctoral degree in economics from Johns Hopkins University and has worked for a series of state agencies, the private sector and for the U.S. Congress.

New chief economist Steve Lerch

“New Forecast Council Executive Director Announced,” was the headline on the press release.

“Dr. Lerch has the right mix of education, training, and experience regarding the economy and forecasting as well as an ability to effectively communicate technical information to a broad audience whose expertise lies in areas other than in economics and forecasting,” said state Rep Ed Orcutt, a Kalama Republican and the current chairman of the council.

But Lerch hasn’t been hired and won’t be until the seven-member council meets next Thursday. So how can he be considered the new chief economist?

The press release says he was considered by the council Wednesday and “after deliberation the Council agreed that Dr. Lerch has the experience that Washington State needs for our unique revenue forecasting process.”

I asked a staff member how that happened, since there doesn’t appear to have been any public notice of a council meeting. She replied that “interviews were conducted on Wednesday, August 29th in executive session; five members agreed on the selection informally.They will formally put forth the motion and approve at our public meeting on September 6th.”

But the forecast council, made up of four legislators as well as the governor’s revenue director, budget director and now the state treasurer is supposed to follow the Open Public Meetings Act. And it has done so since being formed in 1984 to professionalize and take some of the politics out of the official forecast of revenue.

But I couldn’t find any meeting notice for August 29 either in e-mails from the council staff or on its website. And while the law does allow the council to go into closed session to consider candidates for a job, it cannot make decisions or even deliberate in secret. All that is supposed to be done in public. It can’t even deliberate and vote in private and then do it again in public and still abide by the law.

So where and when was the deliberation conducted. And where and when did five council members agree that Lerch was the best for the job?

Orcutt said five council members conducted interviews with Lerch and two other finalists Wednesday and called the decision tentative.

“It’s what people seem to feel,” he said. “We’ll formalize that and have the discussion in public.”

“It’s not totally official until we vote Thursday,” he said.

Marty Brown, the governor’s budget director, said he assumed the meeting had been posted but now sees that it was not. But he said no vote was taken and that members only gave their impressions of the three finalists. While Orcutt could have assumed from the comments that Lerch had enough support.

“It was obvious from the group that were we to vote, it would have been Steve (Lerch),” Brown said. “We left saying we still need to think about it and will vote Thursday,” Brown said.

“I was surprised at the press release,” Brown said. As to the failure to post the meeting, Brown said, “We should be better than that.”

Here is the press release sent today…

New Forecast Council Executive Director Announced
OLYMPIA, August 31, 2012 — The Economic and Revenue Forecast Council plans to vote Stephen Lerch to serve as executive director, replacing former director Arun Raha, at its upcoming September 6th meeting. The Economic Review meeting is scheduled for 2:30 p.m. Thursday, September 6 in the J.A. Cherberg Hearing Room 3.

“We couldn’t have made a better choice,” said State Representative and Forecast council Chair Ed Orcutt. “Dr. Lerch’s in-depth understanding of the state of ashington’s tax structure and the effect that economic factors have on revenue collections will be an asset in the development and preparation of all economic and revenue forecasts for the state. He has strong track record of reliable revenue and economic forecasts.”

Lerch comes to the Forecast Council with a wealth of experience. Since 2006 he has been the Research Director for the Washington State Investment Board. There he served as a member of the agency’s executive team while researching and analyzing on topics such as investment risk and new investment strategies. Lerch earned his PhD in economics from Johns Hopkins University Lerch has served the citizens of Washington in positions with the Washington State Department of Revenue, the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Committee, the Washington State Institute for Public Policy, the Office of Financial Management, and the Washington State Senate Ways and Means Committee.

And, he has twice served as interim director while candidate searches were conducted in 2008 and 2012. Prior to that he worked in the private sector and for the United States Congress.

“Dr. Lerch has the right mix of education, training, and experience regarding the economy and forecasting as well as an ability to effectively communicate technical information to a broad audience whose expertise lies in areas other than in economics and forecasting,” said State Representative Ed Orcutt, Forecast Council Chair.

The Council conducted an executive recruitment to fill the Executive Director position. After deliberation the Council agreed that Dr. Lerch has the experience that Washington State needs for our unique revenue forecasting process.“I am excited that we were able to find someone of Steve’s caliber. He exemplifies the kind of integrity and objectivity vital to this position. I am confident he will serve us well in the coming years,” said Representative Orcutt. “And the fact that he was the top pick out of several highly qualified candidates from around the country and around the world reinforces that we found the best possible person to be executive director.”

The Forecast Council was formed in 1984 to provide independent and objective forecasts of state revenues to the governor and Legislature. Two of the Council members are appointed by the Governor, and four members are appointed by the Legislature, one each from the two largest caucuses in the Senate and House of Representatives.

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