The head of the Washington state Department of Social and Health Services, Dennis Braddock, will step down when the next governor takes office. Braddock says he will stay as long...

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The head of the Washington state Department of Social and Health Services, Dennis Braddock, will step down when the next governor takes office.

Braddock says he will stay as long as needed for the transition but wants the new governor, either Dino Rossi or Christine Gregoire, to work with a new secretary for the state’s largest department.

“In my opinion, either Rossi or Gregoire should have someone that they hire and trust and have a good working relationship with,” he said yesterday. “They need to get someone new rather than inherit someone.”

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Braddock said he made the decision six months ago. His announcement comes ahead of the changing of the guard that will take place at state agencies when the next governor takes office.

Braddock, 61, is one of the longest-serving DSHS chiefs, holding the position for 4-½ years. Gov. Gary Locke appointed him in June 2000 after Braddock had served in the state House of Representatives as head of the health-care committee.

DSHS manages the welfare program, monitors homes for the elderly and mentally impaired, removes children from abusive families and oversees the treatment of sexual predators and juvenile delinquents.

As Braddock describes the job: “You’re just one child fatality away from disaster.”

The department is about to deal with a highly critical audit from the state auditor over its management of the Medicaid system. The auditor claims DSHS officials bungled the distribution of benefits and medication, then obstructed the audit.

Braddock has said the audit agency fell short of professional standards and has called for the federal Office of the Inspector General to intervene.

He said his decision to leave had nothing to do with the audit.

During his tenure, the department also went through a long court battle over foster children that led to what could result in the biggest reform in the child-welfare system in recent history.

His office also faced scrutiny in choosing a site for a halfway house for sexual predators who complete the state’s treatment program, the Special Commitment Center on McNeil Island.

Yesterday, he said he was proud of improving risk management and reducing losses from lawsuits against DSHS. He said he opened up communication channels with the public and integrated services across fractured departments to better serve clients.

Although he invested significant effort to reduce health-care costs, Braddock called it “a losing battle.”

Several state legislators praised his open leadership.

“I actually think he’s done a very good job and appreciate his candor in the office. Hopefully, we’ll get somebody equally fearless in the job,” said Rep. Eileen Cody, D-Seattle, head of the House Health Care Committee.

House Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Helen Sommers, D-Seattle, said the job was “extremely demanding” and that she didn’t know any other DSHS head who had been so open.

“He’s open, he’s candid and frank, he’s accurate,” she said.

Braddock said he doesn’t know what he’ll do next. He does know it will have to be in Seattle because he refuses to commute to Olympia again.

He called it a privilege to work with “people dedicated and committed to work with people most people wouldn’t have anything to do with, whether it be sex predators or people who are very low income, people who are immigrants, people who are disenfranchised, people who are on the bottom rung of society often.”

Braddock added he disagrees with those who view his job as the toughest in the state.

“I don’t think a job like this is a tough job,” he said. “The toughest job in the state is some poor schmuck out in the rain today digging a ditch.”

Sharon Pian Chan: 206-464-2958 or schan@seattletimes.com