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Kirkland trying to heat up the bureaucratic molasses

Jeff Ackerman

Nevada’s Public Safety Director Richard Kirkland is not exactly endearing himself of late.

The state’s top cop was one of the first in line to grab a double-dip offer, entitling him to more than $170,000 per year in salary and retirement. He even managed to grab a couple of dips for his pals.

Then he goes and angers the Nevada Highway Patrol Association by allegedly filling a critical patrol slot with a personal assistant and adding that position to the double-dip line. At least that’s what the association said he did.

Most of the folks I have spoken with about Kirkland, some of them inside his own department, weren’t surprised by his recent actions. They said he is arrogant and that his management style can be intimidating. One former associate even told me that Kirkland’s favorite expression is “RFN,” which is an acronym for “Right F- – – ing Now.”

In bureaucratic circles, RFN is about as foreign as Chinese at a St. Patrick’s Day celebration. Not much in government happens RFN. As a matter of fact, not much in government happens RFL (Right F – – – ing Later), either.

So it’s no small wonder that Kirkland’s RFN style has rattled things at the Department of Public Safety. For employees who were looking to just put in the time and collect a pension, the Department of Public Safety under Kirkland is not a very safe place.

Before he was appointed by the governor in May, 2000, Kirkland had been courted by Guinn for almost a year.

“I told the governor I would try to help him find someone, but that I really wasn’t interested,” Kirkland told me Monday. At the time Kirkland would have had to take a pay cut to accept the $93,000 per year post, since he was collecting a good pension from his more than 20 years with the Reno Police Department on top of his salary as Washoe County sheriff.

After several meetings and an inability to find someone who could carry Guinn’s campaign torch to streamline government, Kirkland accepted the job.

“The governor has given me a tremendous opportunity to make a difference for our entire state,” said Kirkland when he was appointed. “And I’m looking forward to creating a Department of Motor Vehicles and Public Safety that will be a source of pride for all Nevadans.”

He stepped straight into a hornet’s nest. The DMV was working some serious bugs out of its new computer system and the personnel and financial systems were antiquated.

“There were three- and four-hour waits at DMV and we only had another four weeks to launch a new license plate that was mandated and unfunded by the Legislature,” Kirkland recalled.

On top of that, the governor’s plan to separate DMV and Public Safety had been in review for six months. That split happened just a couple of months ago. “The reason for the split was the recognition that the DMV really isn’t a law enforcement agency,” said Kirkland. “We wanted it to stand alone as a customer service center.”

With the split, Kirkland now heads a Public Safety Department that has some 1,600 employees, most of them in the Highway Patrol and Parole and Probation.

Kirkland uses the term “accountability” to defend himself from his critics.

“I would hope that the public has some desire to have someone accountable in government,” he told me. “The governor said when he was elected that he was going to change the way government was done, and if the bad guy has to be me, I’ll do it with a smile.”

As Washoe County sheriff, Kirkland often kicked status quo. “They argued when I wanted inmates who could afford it to pay for their room and board in jail,” he said. “They argued when I made inmates pay to attend a boot camp. And they argued when I wanted the new jail to have dorms instead of individual rooms. All of those things saved taxpayers tens of thousands of dollars.”

He also said he has dispelled the myth that it is impossible to fire a government employee. “We have held people accountable and they don’t work here anymore,” he said. “I would hope that the public sees me as an advocate.”

As to the recent controversy with the Highway Patrol Association, Kirkland promised there is a new chapter coming. He said his new position was intended to streamline the hiring of troopers, a process that is taking far too long. He also denied that the new hire was double-dipping.

“This story isn’t over,” he said. “By and large I’d say the troopers do support the direction we are headed. In the coming weeks you will see examples of what I’m talking about.”

Kirkland will soon be handing the governor an annual report of his operation. “The citizens of Nevada will be able to look at the improvements we have made,” he promised.

In the meantime, Kirkland said he will continue to make changes as he builds his platform of accountability. Some of them will take time, while others will likely occur “RFN.”

Jeff Ackerman is publisher and editor of the Nevada Appeal.