EDITORIAL: MDOT change

By NEMS Daily Journal

The Mississippi Transportation Commission this week has given itself the opportunity to change the organization and management of the huge agency it oversees in ways that should be beneficial in the long run.
It’s unfortunate that the dismissal of Mississippi Department of Transportation Executive Director Larry “Butch” Brown came as he was undergoing treatment for prostate cancer. But it’s understandable that newly elected Northern District Commissioner Mike Tagert didn’t want to wait until Brown’s announced retirement in June to bring on board someone new.
Tagert joined Central District Commissioner Dick Hall, a longtime opponent of Brown’s, in a 2-1 vote that demanded Brown’s immediate resignation or, if it wasn’t forthcoming, his dismissal. The vote came just shortly after Tagert was sworn in as the successor to the late Commissioner Bill Minor, a Brown supporter.
The organizational dynamics of MDOT in recent years have been the opposite of what they should be. Brown, a former Natchez mayor, has sought and accrued the real power in the agency, in spite of the fact that he reports to the elected commissioners. He has been accused of managerial heavy-handedness and has drawn criticism for his public behavior, most recently a public intoxication charge at a Biloxi casino.
Mississippi is the only state in the nation that elects its transportation commission. This newspaper has long contended that the agency would best be run by an appointed executive and that electing commissioners from geographic districts inserts too much regional politics into the system. But as long as the system exists as it is, commissioners who set policy need an executive director who is more interested in carrying out that policy than operating from a power base of his own.
Tagert had indicated in the recent special election campaign that he wanted a change in executive leadership. His vote shouldn’t have been a surprise, even with Brown’s earlier announced plans to leave at the end of June.
What is now imperative is that the commission seek a proven manager with the experience and temperament to guide the 3,000-employee agency in a professional, collegial manner, working effectively with commissioners, the Legislature and other external constituencies.
Tagert brings to his new job a high level of understanding of modern, interconnected transportation systems and needs, and his knowledge and outlook will be valuable in finding the right person for the job of MDOT executive director.
It’s time for the political drama to subside and the statewide effectiveness of this agency so important to Mississippi’s economic development to be of paramount concern.