Oregon’s High-Profile Agency Reformer
Brenda Peterson Rocklin JD’81 keeps a carved piece of two-by-four wedged between her computer keyboard and monitor. It states simply and unequivocally: “No Sniveling.” Rocklin, president and chief executive officer of SAIF Corp. in Salem, Ore., said the sign helps her stay focused on the job at hand — and keeps her attitude in check — during trying times. “When there is work to be done, you just have to roll up your sleeves and do it,” she said. “You can blame others, complain or say that change is hard. But at the end of the day, you still have to get it done.”
Rocklin said her strong work ethic stems from a childhood spent toiling on her parents’ farm in Jerome, Idaho. “They are very hardworking people,” she said. “I get that from them.” After earning her undergraduate degree in journalism from Idaho State University, an emerging interest in politics led her to Willamette University College of Law. “I liked that Willamette is in the seat of Oregon government,” she said. “I wanted the opportunity to see the political process at work.”
During her second and third years of law school, Rocklin clerked at the Oregon Department of Justice, where she gained hands-on experience in criminal law. The externship provided her with a clear career goal. “After the clerkship, I knew I wanted to try cases,” she explained. After graduation Rocklin spent two years in Pendleton, Ore., working as a deputy district attorney. She then returned to the DOJ as an assistant attorney general and spent the next 18 years securing her reputation as a tough but fair prosecutor.
Between January 1984 and December 2002, Rocklin held nine different positions with and worked in four divisions of the DOJ, including administration, appellate, criminal justice and civil enforcement. Around the midpoint of her career at the DOJ, she served as attorney-in-charge for the industrial accident section at the State Accident Insurance Fund (SAIF Corp.). The experience would prove portentous; eight years later she would be appointed president of the company and asked to steer it through a series of difficult reforms.
Over the years Rocklin has become the person in Oregon to call when a public agency is broken and in need of substantial repair. Three times in the past three years she has been handpicked by Oregon governors to tackle high-profile and politically charged agency cleanups.
In December 2002, Rocklin was appointed by Governor John Kitzhaber to overhaul the Oregon Lottery, which the state relies on to finance public education and other publicly funded programs. The Oregon Lottery raises an estimated $325 million for the state each year. “At the time I was appointed to direct the Lottery,” she explained, “there was a critical administrative expense audit of how the Lottery was spending its money. The governor asked me to take a look at what was going on relative to expenses — travel, off-site meetings, cell phone charges, things like that.” Rocklin was tasked with overhauling operations and communicating the value of change to Lottery employees.
Rocklin said she achieved two major victories at the Lottery. “In a short period of time, I was able to turn around the administrative expense issue — the ‘fix it’ part of the job,” she said, noting that a secretary of state audit confirmed all expenditure issues had been resolved. She is equally proud that during that difficult time the Lottery saw an increase in revenue as well. “The legislature asked the Lottery to bring in an additional $108 million during the 18 months I was there,” she said. “And we were successful. We focused on new ways to increase revenue, including creative advertising, innovative games and additional lottery machines. This allowed the state to receive the additional money it was counting on.”
The second call came from Governor Ted Kulongoski in September 2003, when he appointed Rocklin to serve on the newly revamped Public Employees Retirement Board. Rocklin and four other board members were tasked with implementing significant public employee retirement reforms enacted by the 2003 Legislature. Rocklin currently is vice chair of the board.
In August 2004, Governor Kulongoski called on Rocklin again — this time to lead another public agency in the spotlight, SAIF Corp. A not-for-profit public corporation, SAIF is the leading provider of workers’ compensation insurance in Oregon. At the time Rocklin was appointed interim president, the organization was under investigation for a number of alleged ethics violations. There was also an ongoing contempt investigation. Rocklin was charged by the governor with conducting a top-to-bottom review of operations and rebuilding the company’s credibility.
That credibility was tested in the fall of 2004 when voters were asked to decide if the publicly held company should be sold off. “That was an extremely stressful time — waiting to see what would happen with the ballot measure,” she recalled. “It failed in all 36 counties.” Less than a year after taking office, Rocklin was named the permanent head of the company. Rocklin’s long-term appointment to SAIF is a testament to her ability to raise the bar of public accountability within the corporation.
Although her career has shifted from the courtroom to the boardroom, Rocklin said her legal education has helped her immensely in recent years. “The training I received at Willamette has been invaluable,” she explained. “At both SAIF and the Lottery, I walked into a lot of litigation that I had to get past quickly. Knowledge of litigation has allowed me to read cases and rules and have a good grasp on the legal issues at hand.
“The way you learn to think in law school also is important,” she added. “You are very focused on facts and are able to hear both sides of an argument.” Rocklin said that in her current position at SAIF, she tries to examine all sides of an issue before forming a judgment. “I expect my staff to do some give and take on issues and to tell me the pros and cons of a situation,” she said. “I learned that at Willamette — that the best decisions come from hearing both sides before making a decision.”
Although she has spent the past few years heading up high-profile agency reforms, Rocklin said she thrives on the stress and long hours that come with public service work. “Odd as it sounds, I get balance in my life from my job,” said Rocklin, who routinely logs double-digit hours, six days a week. “At the end of every day, I like to feel that I’ve helped somebody — whether it is a crime victim, an injured worker or someone benefiting from the state-raised lottery revenue. That’s the part of the job that defines me. And that’s enough for me.”