Legislators seek ways to make ODOT more accountable
SALEM — Four former chairmen of the Oregon Transportation Commission said Wednesday, March 15, that the commission should regain authority over the state transportation director.
The suggestion was one of a handful the former chairmen gave as ways to enhance accountability for Oregon Department of Transportation projects and contracts.
The chairmen were invited to speak with a new subgroup of the Legislature's Joint Committee on Transportation Preservation and Modernization. The committee is charged with crafting a transportation package worth hundreds of millions of dollars. Legislative leaders hope to pass the package during the 160-day session, which began Feb. 1 in Salem.
About a month ago, the leaders of the transportation package committee asked Rep. Andy Olson, R-Albany, to lead a team of four other lawmakers to come up with policy recommendations for making ODOT more accountable for the agency's spending.
The group invited the former OTC chairmen Wednesday to gain insight on how to improve accountability at ODOT.
The meeting was initially closed to the public, but Olson allowed a reporter to attend Wednesday. The committee's four other topic work groups have held public meetings at the Capitol since the beginning of the session.
Olson said he initially closed the meetings out of concern that the public eye would discourage frankness, but legislative leaders have committed to keeping the process open and transparent.
ODOT has been criticized for its history of projects that have been overdue and over budget. A recent $1 million management performance audit by New York-based McKinsey & Co. was intended to respond to that criticism and show ODOT is prepared to effectively manage an influx of new highway funding.
The firm's report, released Jan. 30, portrayed an agency lacking in dissent and accountability, wasting money and needing greater oversight and guidance.
Two weeks before that, OTC chairwoman Tammy Baney, in a letter to Gov. Kate Brown in January, complained the commission needed more oversight of the director.
"The director carries out the administration of the day-to-day operations," Baney said in a January phone interview with the Pamplin Media Group/EO Media Group Capital Bureau. "There isn't a place for us to have a voice in how that is going."
Baney requested that the governor include the OTC in the director's performance evaluation. She apparently was unaware at the time that Director Matt Garrett has not had a performance evaluation since his tenure began in 2005, according to Garrett's office.
Until 1999, the commission had authority to hire and fire the director, and the director reported to the commission.
After years of pressure by Gov. John Kitzhaber, the Legislature in 1999 took that authority away and gave it to the governor, former OTC Chairman Stuart Foster told lawmakers Wednesday.
Minutes from the 1999 legislative meetings on the bill give no indication of the reason for the change. In 2011, Kitzhaber, then in his third term, commandeered control of the Department of Education, becoming the first governor in the nation to assume the title of superintendent of schools.
"I think it was a huge mistake," Foster said of taking away OTC's oversight of the director. Foster served as commission chair from 2003 to 2007.
Mike Hollern, who served on the OTC most recently from 1987 to 1993, compared the commission to a board of a company.
"You are running the place, and you are responsible to the shareholders, and then all of a sudden, someone else is appointing the director," Hollern said.
Given that commissioners are volunteers and they can't hire and fire the director, "I'm not sure it's worth the effort," Hollern said.
Foster said a conflict within the OTC is the governor's appointment of commissioners who also serve on the commissions of counties or are city employees.
He said it's difficult for people in those positions to be unbiased when voting on projects that could affect their regional areas. He said the governor should choose appointees with "a statewide perspective."
The former chairmen, who also included Henry Hewitt and Steve Corey, also recommended tying increases to the gas tax to the consumer price index. Gas tax revenue pays for road projects in Oregon.