Pay now, payroll later?

Dec. 30, 2003

After hours and hours of tedious campaign volunteering, it seems some are always offered the opportunity to wet their whistle.

After hours and hours of tedious campaign volunteering, it seems some are always offered the opportunity to wet their whistle.

In one year I will be old enough to run for office of the President of the United States. Environmentalists need not worry, this “expand-road-capacity” attitude will be harnessed to writing harmless opinion pieces. But as I grow older I am gaining insight on how the whole election campaign process works. It seems if one owns a button maker or is a distant acquaintance of a political hopeful he or she may be destined for a spot on the state or federal payroll. Granted, most of these envelope stuffers are in charge of minute details, it’s not like their bedroom is wired with a nuclear warhead detonator. And when a new governor or president is elected there are a lot of responsibilities they must fill.

I have a problem when the one in charge uses eager imagination to pull a job or two out of a hat, especially when it reflects on the reputation of public agencies--namely state DOTs. On Nov. 12, the Chicago Sun-Times reported rookie Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich had been busy sprinkling his job-creating pixie dust over a dozen campaign contributors. In this case those involved volunteered their wallet instead of time. But apparently this lucky group has been chosen to act as community liaisons for the transportation department. Their duties are to meet with local officials and speak to community groups about road projects and distribution of state road funds. They also will take part in conferences to help small businesses learn how to win state contracts. Throwing an additional dash of skepticism into this pot was the fact that while the Illinois governor compiled this buddy list IDOT was hiring public relations firms to perform similar duties.

Now I must admit sometimes I can be quick to raise an eyebrow. In fact, there really is no need to exert a brow muscle anymore, the left one is fixed in that position. However, I was rather unfamilar with how the whole DOT public relations effort worked. Assuming the public liaison appointments were real, I called a few transportation departments to pull together a quick national consensus.

My first ring was to the SCDOT. They said there are a handful of legislative assistants that handle five or six different subject matters like transportation, health, etc., but “those are the people we contact when we want to give the governor a heads-up on something. They don’t do anything in terms of going out and meeting the public and talking to the public.”

In Missouri the DOT commission is appointed by the governor pending approval from the state senate. Utah follows the same system, and all three state DOTs had never heard of any liaisons serving on a panel involving a future road or bridge project.

Public forums are fast becoming the way to conduct business at the DOT level across the U.S. It’s a smiling-face approach, one used to comfort the public in ways which were at one time considered crazy in this industry. Some of the questions and concerns can be quite technical, which only a DOT engineer or director is qualified to handle. Do we really want someone who carries very little expertise on road or bridge construction representing the industry in this light?

Neighbors can turn on you if you mow an inch over the property line. If they feel violated, they’ll take it to the polls. Just ask the transportation officials in Missouri. Once proud owners of one of the best interstate systems in the country, DOT Director Henry Hungerbeeler is now looking at the paved veins turning to dust. The reason? MoDOT made promises it couldn’t keep in 1992, and 11 years later the public still has frost-covered feelings toward the department.

All it takes is one episode of ignorance--which may come across as arrogance--for the axe to drop.

The DOT is no place to dump harmful material. The bottom line is a governor should never risk harming the reputation of any public agency.

If somebody wants to donate their precious green to a cause I’m not going to stop them. However, let’s keep their face on the money and out of public view.

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