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Idaho fires transportation director

Thu., July 16, 2009, 2:31 p.m.

BOISE - Idaho’s Transportation Board fired the state’s transportation director, Pam Lowe, on Thursday and named deputy director Scott Stokes as her interim replacement.

Lowe, who’s come under fire from lawmakers as they squabbled over Gov. Butch Otter’s transportation funding proposal this year, said she was “blindsided” by the move and is considering suing.

Lowe said Transportation Board Chairman Darrell Manning asked her to resign “out of the clear blue sky” on May 11, despite positive performance evaluations. She refused. On Thursday, without comment, the board voted unanimously to terminate her, effective July 31, and place her on paid administrative leave until then.

“The board determined this change was necessary to help the department continue improving customer service, economy of operations, accountability and our relations with the Legislature,” Manning said after the board meeting, which included an hour-long, closed-door executive session before the brief vote. Lowe didn’t attend.

“Everyone knows that the department has had its issues, good and bad, with the Legislature, and we hope to improve those in the future,” Manning said. “There’s no nice way to do a change like this. I’ve had a lot of sleepless nights over trying to come to an accommodation.”

But Lowe, a professional engineer and 15-year ITD employee, said, “Telling an employee, ‘You’re doing a good job, we like your work,’ and then terminating me. … They have not given me any indication, just these vague, political type of comments. I have got nothing from them as to why they are doing this, and I think that’s absolutely not in accordance with the law - and I think it’s absolutely inappropriate.”

Idaho state law says the Transportation Board may remove the director “for inefficiency, neglect of duty, malfeasance or nonfeasance in office.”

“I have never been told by the board that it was terminating me for any of those reasons, or even that the board had any concerns about my performance. … In fact, the feedback I’ve got, and reviews from the board, were good,” Lowe said.

Lowe, who is Idaho’s first female transportation director, said she’s talked with an attorney and is evaluating her legal options.

During this year’s legislative session, Idaho Senate Transportation Chairman John McGee, R-Caldwell, introduced legislation to let the governor fire the transportation director, rather than the board, but the legislation didn’t advance.

“It’s not a Pam Lowe issue as far as that bill was concerned as much as it was just a process issue,” McGee said Thursday. “Let’s get the focus off the department and the personnel issues of the department and some of the cloud that was hanging over the department, and let’s get focused on improving infrastructure in our state.”

Lowe said, “Any communications I had with Sen. McGee were always pretty positive - only the minor stuff he ever complained about was really little stuff, like not being invited to the Sandpoint groundbreaking.”

Sen. Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint, said, “I had no problem working with the director.”

She did hear of frustrations from other lawmakers this year about getting information from the department, Keough said, but she said legislators have expressed such frustration for years, including under previous ITD directors.

The department also came under fire for an embarrassing $10 million calculation error in one of the governor’s transportation funding bills, which then didn’t pass.

“I think it was probably a perfect storm, and unfortunately, probably, Pam was the one in the office at the moment,” Keough said. “It’s the system - the road system in Idaho is under tremendous pressure.”

Sen. Chuck Winder, R-Boise, a co-sponsor of McGee’s bill and a former transportation board chairman for 11 years, said in a recent interview that he’s long seen legislators’ ire aimed at the ITD director when there are concerns about transportation. “They are a lightning rod,” he said. “They’ve whipped up on the last two or three.”

Winder said, “Some of ‘em are valid, some of ‘em are political, and some are just ways to try not to address the funding for ITD.”

Lowe, for her part, said she’s had notable successes working with the Legislature, including getting the department’s budget approved “virtually unscathed” for three years, winning passage this year of ITD fee increases for driver’s licenses, titles and the like, and restructuring a controversial bonding program that she said had been “overpromised and under-delivered” and was “absolutely in a shambles.” Now, she said, “Those projects are all being built, and they’re being delivered to the public on schedule.”

She also cited major efficiency and accountability reforms she brought to the department, including a new design approach that saved “$70 million in real money that went back onto the roads.”

Lowe, 51, first joined ITD in 1993 as a construction associate; she became the department’s first female district engineer in 2000. She was named director on Jan. 16, 2007.

She’s also worked for the Arizona Department of Transportation, the Federal Highway Administration, and in the private sector. She is a registered professional engineer in Idaho, Oregon and Arizona. Gov. Butch Otter affectionately calls her “Pammy.”

Otter’s office had little to say about the firing. “We respect the board’s decision,” said Otter spokesman Jon Hanian.

Stokes, the new interim director, has been with the department since 1992 and served as deputy director since 2007. He’s the former district engineer for North Idaho, a position he held for 10 years.

Manning said the board will look both inside and outside the department for a new director; the board will discuss how it’ll conduct the search at its meeting next week.

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