Please, Let’s Have a DOT Commissioner without So Much ‘Experience’

May 14, 2015

Inside Insight

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ariail DOT comissioner

A SOLID RÉSUMÉ CAN MEAN
A SOLID CONFLICT OF INTEREST, TOO

The columnist George Will, in a book called Restoration (1993) in which he made the case for Congressional term limits, once compared Capitol Hill politicians to an overpaid baseball team. (Bear with us.)

In 1988 the Baltimore Orioles (on whose board of directors I sit) were dreadful. They were somewhat like today’s Congress – expensive and incompetent. They lost their first twenty-one games, a record, and went on to lose a total of 107. After the season the Orioles’ management had a thought: Hey, we can lose 107 games with inexpensive rookies. The 1989 Orioles were major league baseball’s youngest team and had the smallest payroll and came within a few pitches in Toronto of winning the American League East.

Leave aside the issue of term limits and consider the matter of “experience” in government. In recent days The Nerve’s Rick Brundrett has revealed that at least three commissioners at the Department of Transportation – Mike Wooten, Woodrow “Woody” Willard, and John Hardee – have all had extensive business ties with the agency before or during their time on the Commission. And yesterday Brundrett documented that DOT’s top brass have a way of sliding easily and immediately into the role of client as soon as they leave the agency – even though state law generally requires public employees to wait one year after leaving public jobs if their new position “involves a matter” in which they “directly and substantially participated” while working for the public agency.

So: A major state agency is being run by political appointees who in essence were – and in some cases still are – the agency’s clients. The opportunities for corruption, waste, and mismanagement are everywhere; and at a time when South Carolinians are increasingly alarmed by the deterioration of their state’s roads and bridges, this convergence of public cash and narrow interests deserves far more attention than it’s gotten so far.

The system is tolerated, of course, because it serves the interests of the legislative leaders who appoint these commissioners to their positions.

But when lawmakers discuss the arrangement openly, how do they justify it? When, in other words, they have to defend their decision to turn a DOT client into a DOT commissioner – an obvious conflict of interest – they almost always reference the appointee’s impressive experience.

“He has a very solid résumé and background in transportation,” Rep. Derham Cole told the Spartanburg Herald-Journal of his delegation’s decision to appoint Woody Willard.

It’s the same any time lawmakers appoint a person to a powerful board or commission when the person clearly has a financial interest in the field he’d be regulating. He has a wealth of experience. He knows this field as well as anyone. He has a solid résumé.

Well, to return to George Will’s Baltimore Orioles, do we really need experience that badly? We doubt very much whether the job of DOT commissioner requires a lifetime’s experience in transportation; or that Messrs. Wooten, Willard, or Hardee really have to draw on their long familiarity with the industry in order to cast votes on road prioritization.

In any case, however – and as the Orioles’ management apparently thought to themselves in 1988 – take a look at where experience has gotten us: Our road system is falling apart.

As long as we have a system that allows a few legislators to run the entire transportation system by means of appointment powers, is it too much to ask that they appoint people who don’t have a major and obvious financial stake in the transportation industry?