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Oregon Gov. Tina Kotek’s ex-chief of staff goes from high stakes job to studying internships

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Gov. Tina Kotek’s chief of staff went from one of the most high-profile and demanding jobs in state government to one that appears, on paper, relatively simple. No pay cut required.

Andrea Cooper left Kotek’s office in March for a consulting role at the state’s Department of Administrative Services. She recently completed her first project: researching and preparing a memo on how other states conduct internship programs. The memo and PowerPoint detailed and include plenty of specifics.

But consider her job responsibilities only a few months prior: She was the person who would stand in for the governor when Kotek was not available. Cooper, who is considered an experienced and skilled government operative, was crucial in shepherding Kotek’s policies on housing, mental health and addiction and education.

Her latest responsibilities are notably low stakes. The cost to taxpayers, however, remains the same: She will continue to make her $302,976 annual salary.

Jeanne Atkins, the former Oregon secretary of state, has worked with Cooper for about 15 years in various roles. She said Cooper had a broad range of skills and has had “a heavy level of responsibility for the past several years” while serving in Govs. Kate Brown and Kotek’s offices.

“I’m sure it’s not something she will be doing forever and a more high-profile, broad ranging position might fit better,” Atkins said. “She has a huge amount of experience in how the government works and how state agencies relate with the governor’s office and one would hope she would be back doing something that would reflect that broad range set of skills … being able to do a whole bunch of different types of things is the essence of great staff.”

The public records detailing Cooper’s new role bolster the notion she was placed at the administrative services office after she was fired by the governor. Cooper, who is a highly-skilled government operative, is now tasked with doing research projects befitting a lower-level staffer. She landed there after raising concerns about First Lady Aimee Kotek Wilson’s expanding role in the governor’s office.

The state of Oregon does not offer fired employees a severance package. The transition agreement between Kotek and Cooper showing her move to the new department appears to be negotiated by lawyers. Cooper signed the transition agreement on March 20, two days before her departure was formally announced. It is set to expire at the end of November. Current and former state employees have characterized the agreement as a stand-in for a severance agreement.

Cooper, along with two other of the governor’s top aides, had pushed for more transparency around Kotek Wilson’s role in the office and tried to protect other staff from the first spouse’s interfering with them doing their day to day jobs. The three top staffers all had long tenures working in state government and were considered to be loyal and well respected.

The governor has suggested the departures of her senior staff were simply part of normal turnover.

More recently, the governor walked back the idea of creating an Office of the First Spouse, but what her wife’s role in the day-to-day of her office’s inner workings remains unclear. Kotek said she is awaiting an opinion from the Oregon Governor’s Ethics Commission before detailing what Kotek Wilson will be doing in her administration in the future.

Cooper has a long history in state politics; she also served as deputy chief of staff for former Gov. Brown and as a political director for the state’s largest labor union, SEIU.

Her new position is as an adviser to the head of the Department of Administrative Services, Berri Leslie. Cooper is expected to give “comprehensive organizational assessments” to Leslie on a range of topics. Administrative Services is a crucial agency, acting as the state’s human resource department and budgeting agency.

Berri, the head of the department, doesn’t make much more than Cooper. Her annual salary is $303,806.

For her internship report, Cooper researched seven states to learn more about how they structure internship programs. She picked states with populations similar to Oregon; Colorado, Connecticut, New Mexico, Kentucky and Minnesota and selected Washington and California since they are neighboring states.

Cooper produced a 22-page memo and a PowerPoint presentation that included her analysis of each state’s internship programs and recommendations for how Oregon could incorporate some of their best ideas.

“During my conversations with New Mexico, the idea of nontraditional students was an equity consideration we discussed quite a bit,” Cooper wrote in her report. “How do internship programs support students who do not want to seek a post-secondary degree but still want to join the state workforce? Or support recent high school graduates or folks with associate degrees who would not otherwise meet the minimum qualifications for a state job?”

Cooper’s contract with Administrative Services ends Nov. 29 but could be terminated by either party at any time. Cooper will be assigned a new project shortly. She is also currently working on helping the department think more critically about top priority issues like whether there is a need to hold meetings and evaluating the length of existing and potential future meetings.

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