Area Kansas legislators were mixed in their views of former Kansas Department of Health and Environment Secretary Dr. Lee Norman following the official announcement of his successor Monday.
Norman was asked to resign from the top KDHE post and did so on Nov. 19, 2021, after internal disputes with Gov. Kelly’s Chief of Staff Will Lawrence. The Kansas Reflector first reported on email exchanges between Norman and Lawrence dating to the summer, in which Lawrence requested Norman halt public comments on policy and to no longer attend KU Health briefings following Norman’s June 9 comments surrounding the emergency declaration.
Following his departure, Norman said in an interview with WIBW that he continues to support the governor and their efforts to address the COVID-19 pandemic, calling her response a ‘model of success.’ Monday, Nov. 29, Janet Stanek was announced as the nomination Norman’s replacement.
Sen. Tom Hawk (D-Manhattan) of Kansas’ 22nd senate district had similar remarks regarding Norman’s three-year tenure and handling of the pandemic.
“I sent Dr. Norman a note after I saw that he had resigned and thanked him for the lives that I believe he saved by the advice he gave and the steps that he advised the governor to take,” Hawk told KMAN Tuesday.
Hawk characterized Norman as ‘both kind and forceful,’ saying he hadn’t been aware of the extent to which statements by Norman had created friction between him and those in the governor’s office.
“I certainly understand the bind the governor is in if there are other things that were a problem,” says Hawk. “Overall, I can’t fault Dr. Norman for his spirit and his knowledge and what he tried to do for the state, but neither can I fault the governor for deciding to make a change to keep the agency moving in a slightly different direction.”
Rep. Ron Highland (R-Wamego) of Kansas’ 51st house district says he’s had issues with Norman dating back to the beginning of the pandemic, saying getting various data regarding testing and other aspects of COVID-19 from him was a non-starter.
“I tried to communicate with him, I asked him for information and he refused to give that to me,” says Highland. “Which is not customary for state employees to refuse legislator’s information — and others had the same problem with him.”
Highland, contrary to Hawk, characterized Norman as ‘aloof’ and having little care for the chain of command.
“We all understand that secretaries serve at the pleasure of the governor — I don’t care who the governor is, they all have the right to appoint those and release them as needed,” Highland says. “And I’ve heard comments from him since his departure […] related to problems with the governor’s staff, and he is one that did not feel he should be questioned. That’s just who he was and it eventually was his downfall within the organization.”
Stanek, the current chair of the Kansas Health Institute Board, is slated to take over the position in Norman’s stead, pending senate confirmation. She will work as acting secretary in the meantime.
Stanek most recently worked as the State Employee Health Benefits Program director, and has a 35-year track record of working in healthcare leadership in multiple states. Stanek spent 21 of those years with Stormont Vail Health Topeka, where she reached the level of chief operating officer and senior vice president.
While complimentary of Norman’s work in the position, Hawk saw positives in the transition to someone with a different professional experience to the organization.
“She’s not a medical doctor, but I think she brings that administrative experience to run a complex agency,” says Hawk. “And I’m not faulting Dr. Norman in any way whatsoever, I just think it’s another skill set and I intend to support her and […] want us to keep moving forward.”
Highland was hopeful that Stanek would be easy to communicate with and committed to keeping the legislature and public informed, though was reluctant to comment too extensively.
“That’s an area that I really cannot speak about because I am not a senator,” says Highland. “The senators will question that individual and look into her background and see if she’s fit for that duty.”