The Senate Transportation Committee’s confirmation hearing on Tuesday for Mississippi Department of Transportation Executive Director Larry “Butch” Brown confirmed the pressing need for a new, depoliticized structure to build highways.
Brown, a former mayor of Natchez who has served eight years as MDOT’s chief executive, brings significant intellectual and experience-based gifts to the position – and almost never-ending controversy.
Tuesday’s hearing was, in effect, forced after Attorney General Jim Hood correctly ruled that Brown must be reconfirmed because by law he serves a four-year term.
Nominated by the three-member, elected transportation commission, he must be confirmed by the Senate.
It is safe and accurate to say that Brown – who is blunt, given to fully engaging in controversy, occasionally profane, prone to less-than-winsome disposition, and personally fiercely defensive – has a sizable number of detractors, including one openly hostile member of the Transportation Commission.
He also has supporters who are exceptionally loyal and praise his running of the department, particularly his handling since Hurricane Katrina of infrastructure recovery on the Gulf Coast.
All those shadings expressed themselves in the rhetoric of Tuesday’s hearing, with some members all but flat-out calling Brown a liar.
Brown has an answer for everything, but he tends to parse words when he’s put in a squeeze.
However, the investigative report about Brown from the Performance Evaluation and Expenditure Review Committee made no allegation of criminality, merely thoroughly explaining complex and controversial situations involving his style – and questions about his son’s business dealings with some of MDOT’s financial service vendors.
Brown explained in glowing detail how other states envy Mississippi’s system. Perhaps so. Politicians, appointed and elected, often envy structures that become virtual fourth branches of government, providing more benefit to political power than performance for the public.
Mississippi needs a new transportation administrative system. Abolish the elected transportation commission.
Consider an executive director appointed to a six-year term by the governor (providing protection from the tendency to have four-years-and-out tenure), and establish a strong accountability mechanism that includes non-elected, highly qualified, private-sector leadership.
Some leaders are looking toward government restructuring. MDOT provides the ideal place to start.
NEMS Daily Journal