Longtime OLCC Director Steve Marks Is Out

Marks put the agency on a strong footing after the rocky tenure of his predecessor.

A patio cocktail at Red Fox. (Aaron Lee)

Gov. Tina Kotek has asked for and received the resignation of longtime director of the Oregon Liquor and Cannabis Commission, Steve Marks, sources tell WW.

Marks informed OLCC staff of his departure today. The move came as a surprise to OLCC staff and to key players in the industries the agency regulates.

Marks took over leadership of the OLCC in October 2013, when its business was strictly the sale and regulation of alcoholic beverages. When voters passed a recreational cannabis measure in 2014, the agency added the licensing and regulation of that product to its portfolio and later changed its name accordingly.

A former longtime aide to Gov. John Kitzhaber, and Kitzhaber’s final chief of staff in his first tenure as governor, Marks brought a wealth of Capitol experience to an agency that wobbled under his predecessor, Steve Pharo.

In the job, Marks won praise from lawmakers and the alcohol and cannabis industries for his steady leadership through the complexities of legalizing cannabis. He also acted with unusual flexibility during the pandemic, pushing to loosen regulations on takeout cocktails, residential delivery and curbside pickup from liquor stores.

Like the Oregon Lottery, the OLCC is tasked with delivering revenue to the state and to local governments. By that measure, the agency has thrived, regularly exceeding forecasts for liquor sales, by far its largest revenue generator.

In fact, liquor sales have grown so much that the agency has purchased some very expensive property in Canby to build a new headquarters and warehouse. The expense of that project caused some heartburn for lawmakers.

Critics Say the Oregon Liquor and Cannabis Commission Paid Way Too Much for New Headquarters Property

The expensive building project notwithstanding, Marks’ departure was unexpected, in part because he weathered the initial storm of agency head departures. Kotek signaled before winning election in November she would clean house at the Oregon Health Authority. Lottery director Barry Pack, a close ally of former Gov. Kate Brown’s, also announced his departure soon after the election, as did Andrew Phelps, director of the Oregon Office of Emergency Management. That led Marks’ supporters to think his job was safe. That turned out to be wrong.

One clue something was amiss: The budget Kotek released Jan. 31 included a proposed new 50-cent-per-bottle liquor price increase. That’s something critics, including Oregon Recovers, an advocacy group critical of the OLCC, supports and the liquor industry does not.

Oregon Recovers executive director Mike Marshall says he’s also surprised to hear Marks is out but hopes that is a sign that Kotek will push the OLCC to be more focused on public health than on maximizing alcohol sales.

Updated at 5:50 pm:

OLCC communications director Mark Pettinger confirmed Marks’ departure.

“The governor has indicated that she’d like to select a new executive director,” Pettinger says. “And a transition plan is currently being worked on. Further details will follow.”

Elisabeth Shepard, a spokeswoman for Kotek confirmed that the governor made a change but declined to comment further.

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