BOISE – Idaho’s next state transportation director could be someone from an entirely different field who’s never worked in transportation.
The Idaho Transportation Board, which already has winnowed a field of 126 applicants down to a short list of a dozen, advertised for someone with leadership skills, business acumen, political skills and “a minimum of five years of senior executive level management experience.”
But it didn’t say anything about highways or bridges.
“We just decided that it was probably time to broaden our horizon and see where it would lead us,” said Jim Coleman, ITD board member from North Idaho. “Some of the finalists that we have interested had not had any transportation department experience.”
The board’s search for a new director comes after it fired former Director Pam Lowe in July amid complaints about her political skills in dealing with the Legislature, as the governor’s bid to increase the state’s transportation investment failed two years running. Lowe, who is contesting her firing, is a professional engineer, like all but two Idaho transportation directors since 1974.
Idaho state law says, “The board shall appoint a director having knowledge and experience in transportation matters.”
But Coleman said, “That’s a pretty broad definition … that could go all the way down to driven on a highway, taken a bus, been in an airport, flown on an airplane. … It could mean that (in) the business setting that they had to deal with transportation issues … whether it’s licensing, making sure the products get to market, coordinating the transportation system within the corporation. I mean, transportation is a part of every business and every governmental agency.”
Idaho Senate Transportation Chairman John McGee, R-Caldwell, said, “It sounds to me like the board is looking for a strong leader to run the department. … The law is pretty vague.”
State Sen. Jim Hammond, R-Post Falls, said, “I’m not troubled by that. There are plenty of experts in transportation, but the head of that program needs to be a strong administrator.”
Hammond noted that when he was Post Falls city administrator, he supervised professionals ranging from planners to engineers to finance experts. “You use all those people to help you make good decisions, but that doesn’t mean I needed to be an expert in all those areas.”
State Sen. Chuck Winder, R-Boise, a former Idaho Transportation Board chairman, said when he headed up a search for a new director in the 1990s, the board wanted “someone that specifically had a transportation background,” and settled on Dwight Bower, who was the deputy transportation director for the state of Colorado. He served a successful decade before retiring in 2002; when the state needed an interim director for five months in 2006, it brought the popular Bower back.
Bower said Tuesday, “Obviously I’m a little biased because my entire life was spent in transportation. I would think that that would be a plus, if the background was in transportation, or at least they had some experience in it. But having managed the department, there’s a whole lot of things in there that are truly management-oriented in dealing with people.”
So far, the board has interviewed 10 of the 12 on the short list, and plans to narrow the group to about four who would receive second interviews. Coleman said he’s hoping the choice can be made by the end of October.
“We have some very good candidates, very well-qualified, both internal and external,” he said, including the current interim director, Scott Stokes, who is among the dozen. Stokes has been with the department since 1992 and is the former district engineer for North Idaho, a position he held for 10 years.