Pay now, payroll later?

Campaign contributors have no business serving on DOT boards

Article December 30, 2003
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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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