Admiration for new DCF regional director Bill Gale cuts across party lines

Bill Gale, a former Wichita City Council member and commissioner of the Sedgwick County election office, is the new Wichita region director for the Kansas Department of Children and Families.
Bill Gale, a former Wichita City Council member and commissioner of the Sedgwick County election office, is the new Wichita region director for the Kansas Department of Children and Families. The Wichita Eagle

Bill Gale has always been a numbers guy.

Accountant by trade. Kept books for an established Wichita pharmacy and two churches. Once finance director for the Mid-America All-Indian Center.

Quick with the numbers during his eight years on the Wichita City Council. Crunched numbers – quickly and accurately – for another eight years as Sedgwick County election commissioner.

He was a quiet student in school. Except in math class when no one else knew the answer.

But now Gale faces a much different challenge after being named to head up Kansas Department for Children and Families’ regional office in Wichita.

He’ll direct an office that deals heavily in numbers but also oversees lives of children who often have dire needs.

“It’s a balance,” Gale said. “You have to realize those are people behind the numbers.”

He’s taking over an office that has had recent troubles.

Diane Bidwell, the region’s previous director, resigned in October in the wake of a state investigation. Results of that probe were made public last week, with some staff members cited for improperly releasing private information and giving preferential treatment to a private entity, FaithBuilders, and its executive director, Andrea Dixon.

There also have been complaints of abusive administrative practices in the office, although those issues weren’t addressed in the investigation.

“Bill is stepping into a lot of problems,” said state Rep. Jim Ward, D-Wichita, a frequent critic of DCF. “He’s got his work cut out for him.”

But Ward also is among those who have either worked with Gale or closely observed his public service efforts over nearly two decides to say the soft-spoken Gale is well qualified for the job.

“I’ve always been impressed with Bill,” Ward said.

The response cuts across party lines and backgrounds.

“Bill will do a phenomenal job of building some bridges and straightening out an office that has had turmoil,” said state Sen. Michael O’Donnell, R-Wichita. “He doesn’t make enemies.

“He’s an implementer. He’s not bombastic. He wants to work with people.”

Sen. Oletha Faust-Goudeau, D-Wichita, whose community activist efforts launched her into the Legislature, was among those who asked DCF to investigate the Wichita office.

“Bill has always reached out in whatever role he’s had,” she said. “He’s a fair guy. I’m going to give him a chance.”

No pushover

Gale, the valedictorian of his 1988 graduating class at South High School, had just turned 25 when he began his first four-year term on the City Council in 1995. That makes him the youngest ever to serve on the council.

“He was very thoughtful, very mannerly, a hard worker and very diligent,” said Bob Knight, whose five terms as mayor included two during Gale’s time on the council. “He’s caring and sensitive. He’s also very quiet.”

Gale planned to launch what turned out to be an unsuccessful bid for mayor in 2003 with his low-key style until his wife intervened. Charissa, who was an image consultant and public-speaking teacher at the time, explained to her husband that just faxing out a news release wasn’t the way to go.

Don’t confuse his quiet personality with being a pushover, Knight said.

“He would express his views,” Knight said.

Sharon Fearey, who served on the council with Gale, said, “Bill always wanted to do what was best for the city. I never had any doubt that was his motive.”

Numbers can be manipulated. Working with numbers is a test of integrity.

“I can’t think of anyone who has served on the City Council or in the election office with higher ethics than Bill Gale,” O’Donnell said.

Knight said Gale has “significant integrity.”

Ward said that if Gale had any integrity warts, they would have surfaced during his time on the council and as election commissioner.

“To be in politics that long and to have folks still say, ‘Yeah, he’s a decent guy, he did a good job,’ that’s a pretty high compliment,” Ward said.

It has been suggested that Gale left the election commissioner’s office in 2011 because the new secretary of state, Kris Kobach, pushed him out over a difference in political views. The secretary of state is responsible for selecting the election commissioner in the largest counties, such as Sedgwick.

But Gale said Kobach had nothing to do with it. He said he stepped down because he thought, while the position didn’t have term limits like the City Council, that “eight years was long enough.”

Plus, his wife was going to run for the state Legislature until redistricting changed those plans. State law would have prevented him from holding the position while his wife ran for office, he said.

What should be noted, O’Donnell said, is that Gale served under both Democratic and Republican secretaries of state.

“Working for the government is a different animal than working in the private sector,” O’Donnell said. “You have to be a person who can work with people. Bill has proven he can do that.”

‘Open and learning’

Born at an Air Force base in Virginia, Gale was part of a military family moving around the country until his father left the Navy when Gale was in fourth grade. They moved to his mother’s hometown of Wichita and not far from where his father grew up on a farm near Whitewater.

His father’s military service fed into his desire for public service. He also was taught to pay attention to details and learn from others.

Gale, 43, comes into this DCF position with no social work background. That’s not unusual for the agency.

Of the four regional offices, only one is headed by a licensed social worker. One has a business background and the other is an attorney.

What Gale also has built up over the years is an understanding of the community.

Besides his time on the council and in the election office, he held part-time positions as a reading para at Mead Middle School and a recreation leader for the YMCA’s after-school program.

“I would be more concerned if I didn’t know the lay of the land,” he said. “That’s going to be huge in this job.”

It fits his style.

“My style is not autocratic,” said Gale, who worked as inspector general for the Kansas Department of Health and Environment after his stint with the election office. “I come in open and learning because I don’t come in with all the answers.

“I want a lot of teamwork and collaborating. We have a lot of social workers with a lot of experience and expertise.

“Learning the job will be the biggest challenge. It’s a new realm, but my focus is on listening and learning.”

Working collaboratively

Jean Hogan doesn’t know Gale, but she has a strong interest in DCF’s Wichita office. She had spent 38 years working for what was then the state’s Social and Rehabilitation Services.

She had worked her way to the top of the Wichita regional office, appointed to be its director in 2005.

But changes came when Sam Brownback became governor in 2011. Some of those changes meant restructuring SRS, which included reducing the number of regional offices from six to four and firing Hogan.

It was a very unpopular decision locally. She was replaced by Bidwell.

“I’ve tried to step back from that,” said Hogan, who became the executive director of a Medical Service Bureau, a Wichita nonprofit that provides low-income residents with financial assistance for prescription medications, eye exams and eyeglasses.

“But I’ve certainly watched with interest with what’s happened over time at that office,” she added. “They are serving vulnerable individuals. But no one agency can provide everything needed, so being able to collaborate with others in the community is so important.”

Hogan said she hopes Gale carries through on his plans to work collaboratively in the community.

“I wish Mr. Gale the best,” she said. “It’s not an easy job.”

‘Do the right thing’

As election commissioner, Gale had six to 10 employees during the non-election season. That shot up to as many as 120 leading up to Election Day and immediately afterward. Depending on the size of election, Election Day would mean 400 to 800 employees.

Now he’ll oversee 460 employees for the DCF Wichita region every day.

The region, which includes 10 counties in south-central Kansas, was handling cases that involved 1,564 children at the end of November, according to DCF figures.

But children are moved in and out of the state system repeatedly. The office is responsible for thousands of children in a year, state officials say.

“Bill is in a different world now,” Ward said. “The DCF is a highly controversial agency that has major impacts on people’s lives.”

Sometimes there are no clear right or wrong answers when it comes to taking children out of homes or placing them somewhere else.

“There’s a lot of public trust when you take a position like this,” said Gale, whose new job brings a $75,000 salary. “My approach is to try to do the right thing.”

Limited resources and seemingly unlimited needs often collide.

“I don’t know if we’ll ever meet all the needs,” Gale said, “but hopefully we’ll be able to get at the root of those needs as much as we can. Not only in meeting them today but also for the long term.”

Related stories from Wichita Eagle