Commission chair seeks greater oversight of ODOT

The chairwoman of the Oregon Transportation Commission has written a letter to Gov. Kate Brown requesting greater oversight of the Department of Transportation.

The head of the Oregon Transportation Commission has asked Gov. Kate Brown to personally engage in beefed-up oversight of the Department of Transportation.

In a strongly worded letter on formal letterhead sent Jan. 10, OTC Chairwoman Tammy Baney requested quarterly meetings with Brown as well as an independent staff person to carry out commissioners’ requests for information and research. Baney also wants an “active” role in ODOT Director Matt Garrett’s performance review, now under jurisdiction of the governor.

“This is essential to ensure that the Director is fulfilling our expectations as well as yours,” Baney wrote, adding, “To effectively carry out the commission’s statutory responsibilities and your policy direction, it is imperative that we more closely coordinate our efforts directly with you.”

Baney, in an interview, said she intended no criticism of Director Garrett or ODOT staff. The all-volunteer, five-member commission she heads is appointed the governor. On paper, state law gives it broad powers to run the department.

But several observers say the letter speaks volumes about tensions and potential flaws in ODOT oversight, even as the department prepares for a massive influx of funding for road and bridge projects if the Legislature approves a package of increased fees and taxes.

“Wow,” said Catherine Mater, who held Baney’s position until 2015, as the letter was read to her over the phone. Considering that ODOT staff ostensibly work for the commission, Mater said the request for an independent staffer indicates “a complete disintegration of trust” between ODOT and the commission tasked with overseeing it.

David Bragdon, former president of greater Portland’s Metro regional government, has closely watched ODOT for years. The letter “reads like a vote of no confidence in (ODOT) management,” said Bragdon, who is executive director of Transit Center, Inc, a nonprofit.

“This is a pretty darn amazing letter,” said Jim Moore, a Pacfiic University government professor who leads the Tom McCall Center for Policy Innovation. The fact that it was put on official letterhead suggests it was meant “for a wider audience and that the letter was intended to put pressure on the governor,” he said.

Gov. Brown wrote a noncommittal reply Jan. 13. She did not comment on Baney’s specific requests but expressed appreciation for the commission’s role.

“Your involvement and continued communication with my office is key to the active and critical role OTC plays in the efforts to create a robust transportation system,” Brown wrote.

Bryan Hockaday, a Brown spokesman, said the governor’s response was not a denial of Baney’s requests but declined to comment further.

Specifically, Baney wants to increase the commission’s oversight of the budget, participation in project selection, tracking of funds within the department and development of policy from the beginning stages.

For instance, Baney said she would like the commission to decide what percentage of funds are spent on road maintenance, bridge replacement and other items.

“Ten years ago, the director used to report to the transportation commission,” Baney said in a phone interview. “The governor now oversees the director, but at the same time, the transportation commission is to carry out the oversight of the agency. The director carries out the administration of the day-to-day operations. There isn’t a place for us to have a voice in how that is going.”

Baney’s letter referenced an October workshop of the commission in which Baney and others called for more active oversight by the OTC. Garrett, in the meeting, responded that a “bright line” should separate his day-to-day leadership of the department and the commission’s “higher policy activities.”

When contacted on Friday, Garrett said he had “no issues” with Baney’s request. “Should this direction be taken, I stand ready to productively engage it,” Garrett wrote in an email.

Baney’s letter follows years of heightened turmoil and skepticism around ODOT.

In 2015, lawmakers questioned ODOT estimates about an earlier transportation proposal that provided inaccurate estimates of climate change impacts. The department has been buffeted by questions about cost overruns, conflicts of interest and management’s decade-long rejection of internal staff and federal recommendations to bolster highway construction oversight.

Mater was removed by Gov. Kitzhaber after questioning a project that she concluded showed signs of fraud. She said ODOT gives commissioners little choice but to “rubber stamp” decisions, adding that she probably would have pursued the same sort of changes as Baney if she’d stayed.

“In my opinion the department really does need to be shaken up,” Mater said. “The commission needs to have much more active involvement in what happens with these projects and where the money is spent, quite frankly — and that simply has not happened up to this point.”

ODOT is positioned to receive hundreds of millions of dollars in potential transportation funding from the state Legislature later this year. At the request of lawmakers, Brown earlier this year ordered an independent review of ODOT’s management to ensure the agency is prepared to efficiently manage the influx of money. The nearly $1 million review by New York-based McKinsey & Co. is scheduled for completion by the end of February.

“I realize that what I am proposing … represents significant change in the way we currently carry out the state’s business regarding our transportation system and policies,” Baney wrote in the letter. “I believe that these changes are essential to meet the rightful expectations of all Oregonians and to gain their support for the right solutions to our state’s very challenging transportation issues.”

Nick Budnick is a reporter for the Portland Tribune.

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