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Cabinet Shakeup: Knodell to DSS; Steelman leaves OA

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — Robert Knodell is taking over the Department of Social Services later this week amid a series of Cabinet transitions, the governor announced Tuesday. 

Knodell, Parson’s deputy chief of staff, stood in as acting director for the Department of Health and Senior Services earlier this year and led the state’s COVID-19 vaccination efforts.

In an interview with The Missouri Times Tuesday, Knodell said he wants to “empower” the DSS staff and work with the General Assembly, department, and external stakeholders to care for Missouri’s most vulnerable population.

“Our state really has no greater obligation than to provide the best care we can for our most vulnerable and most at risk,” Knodell said. “When I start, that’s going to be my paramount objective, to ensure there are no holes, rips, or tears in the state’s safety net.”

Knodell will resign from the Governor’s Office on Oct. 17 to take the position, and Jennifer Tidball, the current acting director, will move to become the department’s chief operating officer on Oct. 18.

Tidball has been in the hot seat this year due to the department’s handling of foster care children and unlicensed reform schools. She was tapped for a second tenure in the position in 2019 after stepping in during the first half of 2017. She joined the department in 1995 and has worked in various divisions during her career.

DSS Acting Director Jennifer Tidball speaks during a press conference on COVID-19. (OFFICE OF THE GOVERNOR)

Knodell said he takes the findings from the recent federal report on Missouri’s foster care children — which said the state failed to adequately protect or locate foster children who went missing — seriously. The department has already begun work to address the report, Knodell said, and he will join that effort.

“We have no greater obligation than our responsibility to take care of the most vulnerable,” Knodell said. “Anytime we see a breakdown or we see an area where we’re struggling in that regard, we all have to work together to fix it. I’m going to start identifying as many challenges as possible, and empowering our folks, and making sure we’re responsive to the needs of our citizens and taxpayers.”

Other Cabinet maneuvers 

Gov. Mike Parson announced a myriad of Cabinet transitions Tuesday afternoon.

“We appreciate the great work our agency leaders have achieved in service to all Missourians. These leaders have helped move our state forward while navigating some of the hardest times in our state’s history,” the Republican chief executive said. “This transition in state government will better position our Cabinet to provide the best possible service to Missourians in the coming years. We look forward to our new leaders helping us continue our momentum and bring greater opportunity to Missourians all across the state.”

Ken Zellers is taking over as acting OA commissioner. (MISSOURI DEPARTMENT OF REVENUE)

In addition to the DSS changes, Sarah Steelman is stepping down as commissioner of the Office of Administration with Revenue Director Ken Zellers moving into the acting director position. This change went into effect immediately Tuesday.

Steelman has served in the role since 2017. She previously served as state treasurer.

Zellers joined DOR as its chief operating officer in 2017 before leading the department as its director two years later.

Joseph Plaggenberg, who has served as the Revenue Department’s general counsel, is taking over for Zellers. Plaggenberg stepped in as general counsel on Aug. 1 after serving as administrator of the Driver License Bureau, legislative coordinator, division general counsel, and the Motor Vehicle and Driver Licensing Division director.

As was previously reported, Department of Economic Development Director Rob Dixon is leaving his position on Oct. 22 to join Ameren Missouri as its director of community and economic development. He was appointed to the position in 2017.

Deputy Director Maggie Kost will take over as acting director then.

Department of Mental Health Director Mark Stringer will retire at the end of October, Parson announced. A national leader in the mental health field, Stringer was named the DMH director in 2015 after having worked in the department already, first as a deputy director and then as a division director. He is the former president of the National Association of State and Alcohol and Drug Abuse Directors.

Stringer advocated for innovative approaches to aid individuals during the pandemic, especially to help Black Missourians who were disproportionately affected when it came to overdoses.

The department’s deputy director, Valerie Huhn, will take over as acting director effective at the end of the month.

This story has been updated.