BOISE - Idaho has named a new transportation director, this time an administrator from Michigan’s Department of Transportation who holds both an engineering degree and a master’s degree in public administration and who spent the last 12 years working with state lawmakers.
Brian W. Ness will start as director in early January, taking over from current interim director Scott Stokes, who will then return to his former post as deputy director. Ness has been with the Michigan DOT for 30 years.
ITD board Chairman Darrell Manning said, “Ness possesses the professional background, leadership skills, and energy to make an immediate impact on transportation in Idaho. We know that his degree in public administration coupled with his transportation background will serve him well in effectively leading the transportation department.”
The move comes after ITD fired former Director Pam Lowe in July; she’s now suing the state for wrongful termination, alleging sex discrimination, political cronyism and more; her lawsuit says the board fired her for refusing to favor a campaign contributor to the governor who holds a hefty ITD contract.
Lowe, the state’s first female transportation chief, is a professional engineer and 15-year department employee.
Ness, also a professional engineer, said he can’t comment on the issues in the lawsuit involving his predecessor. “My focus has to be on moving the department forward, and that’s what I intend to do,” he said.
The ITD board had given Lowe top performance reviews, but when they fired her, board members said they were unhappy with her relationship with lawmakers. Earlier this year, Senate Transportation Committee Chairman John McGee, R-Caldwell, introduced legislation to turn the transportation director into a political appointee of the governor’s, rather than a professional appointed by the board. He later decided not to advance the bill.
Lowe has been in the middle of Gov. Butch Otter’s unsuccessful pitch to lawmakers for the past two years to raise gas taxes and vehicle registration fees to fund road improvements. Otter now has a task force studying the issue, set to report back in a year.
McGee welcomed the new director Thursday as someone who “seems to be very qualified for the position,” and said he thought Ness’ experience working with state lawmakers would prove valuable.
In his current post as a regional administrator for Michigan DOT, Ness said he’s worked closely with state legislators from his region, a key part of his job and those of the state’s other six regional administrators. He said what worked for him was “just face-to-face honest communication, a lot of one-on-one communication, just the relationship-building, so that when you talk to them they know you’re credible, that you’re going to do the right thing, that they can take what you say to the bank.”
Asked how he’s handled political pressure, Ness said, “I just worked very hard to establish credibility with our local elected officials, and if we couldn’t do something based on policy or procedure, my reputation was good enough with them that I was able to say, ‘No, we can’t do that,’ and they understood why and we moved on.”
The announcement came a day after Gov. Butch Otter criticized Lowe in a statement released in response to a request from the Lewiston Tribune, which has been editorializing against his silence on her lawsuit.
“I support the decision of the board to remove the former director and go in another direction,” Otter said in the statement. “The issue over the past legislative session became Pam and ITD, instead of fixing ailing roads and bridges and addressing the backlog of projects to keep Idaho’s roads safe.”
Otter said Lowe never raised concerns with him about the big contract, though she told lawmakers she was committed to reducing or eliminating it.
“In the end, despite her claims, Pam was ineffective and lost the faith and confidence of the board, my office and many in the legislature,” Otter said. “Now more than ever, we need a leader at ITD who can work with the legislature and board to successfully address our infrastructure needs today and into the future.”
Ness, 51, will start his new job Jan. 11.