Idaho transportation director resigns

News The Idaho Statesman August 18, 2006
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Embattled Idaho Transportation Department Director Dave Ekern recently announced his retirement, and Gov. Jim Risch appointed longtime director Dwight Bower to oversee the department while the state Board of Transportation conducts a search for a new director, the Idaho Statesman reported.

Ekern's resignation came after an independent report criticized communication and morale within the department, which manages $700 million a year in road spending and is in the early stages of planning the $1.2 billion Connecting Idaho highway-repair project, according to the newspaper.

On Thursday morning, Ekern submitted a resignation letter to the seven-member board chaired by Frank Bruneel, a former state lawmaker recently appointed by Gov. Risch.

"My direction to Dwight is the same as I gave to Frank: Move the department forward," Gov. Risch said.

Earlier this month, a study requested by the board reported that under Ekern, staffers harbored an "unusual amount of fear" over the agency's changing role, the Idaho Statesman reported.

The department has already awarded two contracts worth $43 million and conducted its own work for the design phase of the first six projects under Connecting Idaho, the state's largest infrastructure overhaul in decades.

The plan departs from Idaho's pay-as-you-go method of financing road projects, instead selling bonds to launch road projects fast enough to avoid inflation, according to the Statesman.

Transportation officials will pitch the first shovel on the project Friday on U.S. 30 in the eastern Idaho town of Lava Hot Springs, Gov. Risch said.

The Republican governor declined to say whether the internal study contributed Ekern's departure.

The 16-page study, first obtained by the Associated Press through an open-records request, included excerpts from 60 department employees interviewed by retired transportation chief Darrell Manning.

The report said department leaders failed to communicate effectively with the board, and many of the department's 1,800 employees reported that they received too little positive feedback from Ekern and transportation brass.

"Under Ekern, the department was asked to make changes to the organization," said Jeff Stratten, transportation spokesman. "Changes to organization can be troubling and disconcerting."

In his resignation letter, Ekern said he is leaving to pursue "two potentially significant career opportunities."

He said it would be unwise to angle for new work while he remained a state employee.

Ekern received a $130,000 annual salary. He will remain on the state payroll until Aug. 25, exhausting his remaining paid-vacation time, Stratten said.

Bower, who led the agency for nine years prior to Ekern's appointment, will take over Sept. 5.

Since leaving the department, Bower has worked as a top executive in Boise's branch office of the Chicago-based transportation engineering firm HW Lochner Inc.

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