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Editorial: Transportation Commission should have authority over ODOT’s director

Director currently reports directly to the governor

Published on March 20, 2017 12:01AM

The state Department of Transportation needs greater oversight.

File Photo

The state Department of Transportation needs greater oversight.

Oregon legislators charged with crafting a transportation package worth hundreds of millions of dollars are doing the right thing by seeking more accountability within the state Department of Transportation.

They should take the next step by including language in their transportation bill to give the Oregon Transportation Commission greater management oversight of ODOT’s performance.

Several disconnects between ODOT and the Transportation Commission were detailed in a report by our Capital Bureau last week when four past Transportation Commission chairmen spoke with a subgroup of the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Transportation Preservation and Modernization, which is charged with creating a passable package. The meeting’s focus was to help legislators get additional insights on ODOT accountability.

According to the state’s website, the commission establishes Oregon transportation policy and guides the planning, development and management of our transportation network. It meets monthly to oversee and evaluate the Department of Transportation’s activities to carry out those policies.

Cry for oversight

A cry for more ODOT oversight arose in January when a $1 million independent audit portrayed the agency as lacking in dissent and accountability, wasting money and needing greater oversight and guidance.

Two weeks prior to the audit’s release current Transportation Commission Chairwoman Tammy Baney had complained to Gov. Kate Brown that the commission, whose all-volunteer members are gubernatorial appointees, needs more oversight authority of ODOT’s director, who reports to the governor rather than to the commission.

In Baney’s letter to the governor, she asked that Brown include the commission in evaluating ODOT Director Matt Garrett’s performance.

However, according to Garrett’ office as detailed in our report last week, Garrett has not received a performance evaluation since he began his tenure in 2005.

Until 1999, the ODOT director reported directly to the commission rather than to the governor, former Commission Chairman Stuart Foster told legislators. But the Legislature, after years of pressure from then-Gov. John Kitzhaber, took that authority away from the commission and placed it in the Governor’s Office, Foster said. Minutes from the 1999 legislative meetings on the bill don’t contain indications of the reasoning for the change.

Like a private board

In the meeting with the legislative subgroup, former Commission Chairman Mike Holleran, who served from 1987 through 1993, compared the commission to a private company’s board of directors.

“You’re running the place, and you are responsible to the shareholders, and then all of a sudden, someone else is appointing the director,” he said.

Foster, who served as the commission’s chairman from 2003 to 2007, went even further, calling the removal of the oversight of the director’s position a “huge mistake.”

Holleran and Foster are right, and legislators need to correct that mistake by altering the leadership structure in the transportation bill they submit.

What well-run, private-sector company doesn’t evaluate its chief executive at any point during a 12-year tenure, and how would any CEO know if they were managing and leading successfully without performance reviews?

Embarrassingly, Garrett’s tenure also includes the two years of Brown’s governorship, so while she has publicly called for more accountability — including ordering the independent audit that was released in January with the negative findings — her leadership actions since haven’t fully matched her words.

The commission is much closer to the action than the governor, and its members are qualified and in place to use the expertise they bring to those positions.

They should be allowed to do just that, and legislators should change ODOT’s chain of command structure. For additional accountability in state government, they should also demand a list of any other agency heads who report to the governor who haven’t been evaluated and should consider changing those leadership structures, too.


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