On Maj. Gen. Ron Dardis’ last flight as a fighter pilot, a fan blade snapped inside the engine of his F-16.
He was forced to eject from about 9,000 feet. So, needless to say, the grilling he’s taking from state lawmakers as the new executive director of the Rebuild Iowa Office isn’t rattling his nerves.
The office, created by Gov. Chet Culver to coordinate flood response, hasn’t been running with military precision lately. State lawmakers are wondering about $19,000 to carpet the agency’s office, eye-popping overtime costs and why office staff includes Democratic political operatives.
Rebuild Iowa’s chief of staff, Emily Hajek, a former Culver campaign finance director, wilted under legislative questioning and made matters worse. Sensing big trouble, Culver picked Dardis to lead Rebuild Iowa on Feb. 6, weeks before he’s set to retire as adjutant general of the Iowa National Guard. The governor saw the need for adult supervision, fast.
Rep. Jeff Kaufmann, R-Wilton, an RIO critic, says Dardis still has explaining to do. “He’s not a general anymore. He’s a bureaucrat.”
Not exactly. Culver has the power to keep Dardis in uniform. “I’ll be serving in a military status,” Dardis said. The guy in charge will still have stars.
I interviewed Dardis while he was in Cedar Rapids on Friday.
Question one: Is RIO still needed?
Dardis chaired last year’s Rebuild Iowa Commission, which charted a recovery blueprint. He feels strongly that RIO is still needed to help make that blueprint into policy. He argues the office is necessary to coordinate several state agencies, to synchronize state and federal efforts and to help secure more federal aid.
“It was determined early on that we did not have the capacity in state government to deal with a disaster of this magnitude,” Dardis said. “The dynamics of this recovery are mind-boggling.”
How is he cleaning up the budget?
Dardis reviewed RIO’s state request and sliced it from $2 million down to around $1.3 million. Overtime projections were cut and all overtime must now be approved. Dardis said he’s reviewing qualifications of RIO staff members and their salary levels. But he defended Hajek and says the carpet issue is a “distraction.” Lawmakers should get budget numbers this week.
Why is RIO headquartered in Des Moines and not in the disaster zone?
Dardis argues his office needs to be close to the agencies it coordinates. I say if RIO is so indispensable, why is only one staffer assigned to the worst-hit city? He sees my point but isn’t changing his mind. I guess we just disagree.
Does RIO need a lobbyist?
Dardis insists Susan Judkins is a government “liaison,” not a lobbyist. That sets off my give-me-a-break alarm, but he insists her primary duty will be to work with local governments, not lobby lawmakers.
Bottom line, Dardis is a straight-shooter with 43 years of military service under his belt. I’m inclined to give him a chance to run the show and see what happens. He seems determined to rebuild public trust in the agency. But if he can’t do it, it’s time for Plan B.