Latest from The Spokesman-Review
The Idaho Transportation Department says it’ll suspend roadwork statewide that impacts travelers to ease the way for motorists over the upcoming Labor Day holiday weekend, with one exception: The Gowen Road interchange project just east of Boise. Work being done there will not impede traffic, ITD says. "Contractors have no interest in working over the holiday, just like most of us," said ITD Chief Operations Officer Jim Carpenter. "Most would take these days off anyway, even if it was not required."
The closure for the holiday will be from Aug. 30 to Sept. 1.
A transportation plan for the 2014 Diamond Cup received approval Monday and the Idaho Transportation Department issued organizers a permit for the Labor Day weekend event. The plan approved by ITD includes the bussing plan to and from the event, signage along the highway in the vicinity of Silver Beach, and the requirements expected of the group for organizing and supervising other aspects of traffic control. "Ironically, the ITD permit is one of the requirements for a marine-event permit set forth by the Kootenai County Sheriff's Office," a press release from Diamond Cup organizers said. "Sheriff Ben Wolfinger set a July 1 deadline for the submission of all necessary marine-event permit materials even though he knew that the ITD permit would not be issued until after his deadline." In a letter Monday from Stephanie Hale at ITD to Diamond Cup president Doug Miller, she wrote that the permit is only conditionally approved/David Cole, Coeur d'Alene Press. More here.
Question: I must be missing something here. Didn't the sheriff say, no? Can anyone figure out what the Diamond Cup organizers are doing by continuing to seek other permits for Labor Day races?
Alan Johnson’s company lost 16.3 acres of prime property along U.S. 95 in North Idaho when the state seized it for a new interchange under eminent domain law. Now the shopping center developer stands to lose another $1.1 million, which is how much the state paid an outside law firm to wrangle over reimbursement for the property – because the state wants Johnson’s company to pay the legal fees the Idaho Transportation Department incurred in trying to seize the land. Johnson calls the tactic “completely unconstitutional,” a sentiment echoed by his lawyer, who said the episode is a “perversion” of law.
The case, now pending before the Idaho Supreme Court, is raising questions about Idaho’s use of eminent domain; a local legislator, Rep. Ed Morse, R-Hayden, says Idaho needs to change its laws. Meanwhile, the shopping center site – slated for the Athol area’s first major grocery store – stands vacant as the multi-year court fight continues. “I’ve never encountered anything like this,” said Johnson. “All we’re trying to do is get the fair market value for what the property was, to get the access to the site after it’s done, and to make sure that our utility issues were taken care of,” he said, adding, “For every dollar we spend in attorney fees, the state spends about $3 or $4. … There’s got to be an easier way to do this.”
ITD has spent $2.1 million and counting on legal fees to an outside firm to battle over prices for seized property along the Garwood-to-Sagle project on Highway 95. Another property owner, Dee Jameson, had his own year-plus legal fight with the state, after which the state’s legal bills added up to nearly as much as it agreed to pay Jameson. “I don’t think they gained any ground by their strategy,” said Jameson, a past president of the Idaho Association of Realtors. He said the long fight over the price was “a total waste of the state’s time and money, in my opinion.” You can read my full story here from Sunday’s Spokesman-Review.
The Idaho Transportation Board voted today to use state funds to pay contractors working on federal highway projects in Idaho if the federal government shutdown continues beyond Thursday. The alternative would be to shut down $30 million a month in federal highway projects under way in Idaho, along with another $875,000 in transit services; ITD will seek reimbursement from the feds after the shutdown ends. “We want to honor the contracts that have already been awarded and keep people working,” said Idaho Transportation Board Chairman Jerry Whitehead; click below for ITD’s full announcement.
More than 30 people turned out for a public comment session on heavy-truck rules in Lewiston yesterday, with several local officials raising concerns about the Idaho Transportation Department’s proposed process for approving new routes for extra-heavy trucks; a similar session also was held yesterday in Coeur d’Alene, and Monday in Idaho Falls and Pocatello. Additional hearings are still to come in Twin Falls next Wednesday and Boise next Thursday; the Idaho Legislature this year passed new laws making permanent a 10-year pilot project allowing trucks up to 129,000 pounds on 35 specific southern Idaho routes, plus another law allowing additional heavy-truck routes to be designated statewide.
Four new rules to implement those new laws are the subject of the rule-making hearings; ITD also is taking public comment on the rules through Oct. 24. The Lewiston Tribune reported that ITD Motor Vehicle Division Administrator Alan Frew said on state routes, a hauler would apply for a new route to be designated for loads of up to 129,000 pounds, submitting information about their plans; and then ITD would do an engineering analysis to determine if the route could handle such loads. The results would go to an ITD subcommittee, which then would make a recommendation to the full ITD board. If the board approved, ITD’s chief engineer then would schedule a hearing in the local community to take public comment, and then issue a preliminary order. If the order isn’t appealed within 30 days, it would become final.
Lewiston city officials questioned why the public testimony would come after the ITD board’s already made its decision. Lewiston City Councilman Dennis Ohrtman said, “You have the chief engineer taking public testimony and including that in his recommendation, but if he says do it, the ITD Board has no more say,” the Tribune reported. In Coeur d'Alene, 18 people attended the public comment session, with most favorable on the new rules, though Shoshone County and the Worley Highway District raised some concerns.
On local routes, haulers would have to apply to the local road jurisdiction. Frew told the Lewiston crowd that local officials could require applicants to help fund needed studies to determine if the routes can handle the loads. The current limit on truck weights in Idaho, outside the specific designated routes, is 105,500 pounds. There’s more info here on the proposed rule changes; to submit comments or ask questions about the new rules, email firstname.lastname@example.org write to Adam Rush, ITD Communications, P.O. Box 7129, Boise 83707-1129.
The Idaho Transportation Department is taking public comments through Oct 24 on new rules allowing extra-heavy trucks on additional routes in Idaho, and the department has set a series of public meetings around the state, starting in Pocatello on Oct. 7 and running through a Boise meeting Oct. 17. Click below for ITD's full announcement. The Idaho Legislature this year passed new laws making permanent a 10-year pilot project allowing trucks up to 129,000 pounds on 35 specific southern Idaho routes, plus another law allowing additional heavy-truck routes to be designated statewide.
The Idaho Transportation Department’s Incident Response team responded to an unusual emergency on Friday: Ten ducklings that had fallen into a drain at the Exit 50 A-B ramp of I-84, next to the soundwall of the Flying Wye bridge.
A passing motorist reported the ducklings had fallen into the drain; ITD workers arrived on the scene eight minutes later. They used a hoist mounted on the back of their maintenance truck to pull off the drain cover, and two workers then rigged up a bucket and rope and dipped out nine of the ducklings.
The 10th remained trapped; worker James Cherry dropped down into the drain, which was 7 feet deep, to try to rescue it, but it went too far up the pipe and was unreachable. The nine rescued ducklings were then returned to a stormwater retention pond at the Flying Wye, where they swam safely out with their mother.
It was ITD’s second duckling rescue in a month; the first came when a mother duck and her brood fell into a storm drain on the grounds of ITD’s headquarters in Boise.
Council members voted 5-1 to reject the Idaho Transportation Department’s offer to transfer ownership of Lake Coeur d’Alene Drive to the city. Deanna Goodlander cast the lone vote in favor of ITD’s offer, which would have included a one-time, $3 million payment to the city. Council members Steve Adams and Ron Edinger — along with several residents of Silver Beach Road — questioned the costs of maintaining the road, let alone adding amenities such as a boat launch or a public beach along the five-mile stretch. “Why does the city of Coeur d’Alene want to take on a burden of this magnitude? I can’t figure it out,” Edinger said, adding that ITD officials should offer the road to the East Side Highway District/Joel Donofrio, Coeur d'Alene Press. More here.
Question: Do you agree/disagree with this decision?
The Idaho Transportation Department this week agreed to new regulations allowing transgender drivers to change the sex designation on their driver's licenses without a note from a surgeon, the Associated Press reports, after two people complained that previous policy violated their civil rights. In April 2011, the state highway agency began requiring a signed surgeon's note signifying the individual “had undergone a complete surgical change of gender.” Early this year, two people said they were blocked from getting their driver's licenses, based on this policy/Betsy Russell, Eye on Boise. More here.
Here's a news item from the Associated Press: BOISE, Idaho (AP) ― A large shipment of water-purification equipment will be transported through Idaho to Montana on a disputed mountain highway where big loads have been the subject of oversized controversy. The Idaho Transportation Department announced Wednesday a trucking company will transport the purification equipment on U.S. Highway 95 and U.S. Highway 12 next week. The shipment weighs 520,000 pounds and is 300 feet long, 20 feet wide and 22 feet high. Shipments along Highway 12, which parallels the Lochsa River through northcentral Idaho, have been the subject of heated debate after Exxon Mobil sought to use the route to get enormous refinery gear from a Snake River port to Canadian oil sands. Amid opposition, the company trimmed its loads and used another route. The purification equipment begins its four-day journey Monday night.
The city of Coeur d'Alene wants to study the numbers - all the different numbers - before it decides whether it will take over roughly 5 miles of East Coeur d'Alene Lake Drive. After hours of public testimony Monday evening, and an open questions and answers forum with state and city officials, the City Council said it wants to take in the different viewpoints before it schedules the next step on deciding the old highway's fate. "We have lots of concerns in front of us," Mayor Sandi Bloem said. "Absolutely, we need to get more information on this and consider, on both sides of the fence, and we'll do that." The Idaho Transportation Department is looking to give the waterfront road away because it no longer wants to maintain it. It's offering the city $3 million to take it. The city is considering it because along with the money, it would guarantee local, not state, control over waterfront property popular with bicyclists and pedestrians as it is with motorists/Tom Hasslinger, CdA Press. (Jerome A. Pollos Press photo: Greg Delevan airs his concerns during a city council workshop Monday)
Traffic moves along the onramp of the $106 million Sand Creek Byway last week. New traffic volume counts obtained from the Idaho Transportation Department show that about 8,500 daily vehicles mid-week and 9,600 on Friday are using the two-mile shortcut around downtown Sandpoint. That includes all commercial trucks, which number around 1,500 a day. Story here. (SR photo: Kathy Plonka)
- Idaho Records/Sherry Adkins, SR
- Idaho scene featured on forever stamp/AP
- Average price of gasoline $4.03 in Washington/AP
- Body of missing Canadian found by hunters/Idaho PT
- Kootenai County may suspend impact fees/Brian Walker, Press
- Time to mothball sandals in Montana capital?/Angela Brandt, HIR
- Home explosion hospitalizes Idaho legislator's wife/Twin Falls Times News
- Orbusmax Special: Reigning 'Jeopardy!' Tacoma champ loses, missing NW geography question here
Question: Do you prefer calling the new stretch of H95 through Sandpoint "byway" or "bypass"?
The state's legal bill for fighting former ITD chief Pam Lowe's wrongful firing lawsuit has swelled to $614,647, according to information obtained under the Idaho Public Records Law. Idaho's Risk Management office in the state Department of Administration, responding to a pending public records request from Eye on Boise, reported that figure for total attorney fees and other defense costs for the state as of the date of dismissal. Kit Coffin, risk management chief, reported, "That is the total of all in hand on the date of dismissal. There may be another bill or two from work relating to that."
After close to three years of litigation, the state settled with Lowe for $750,000; it also gave her a positive job reference, which was attached to the settlement.
BOISE - The state of Idaho is paying $750,000 to former Transportation Director Pam Lowe to settle her wrongful-firing lawsuit, bringing the state’s total cost for the case to $1.34 million. (Emphasis mine)
“I tried to resolve this dispute early on, even as early as at the time of my termination, for much less money than what ITD is paying me now,” Lowe told The Spokesman-Review. “I’m certainly happy to put this behind me. … I’m proud of what I accomplished at ITD.”
ITD spokesman Jeff Stratten said in a statement, “The Idaho Transportation Board still believes it was appropriate and within its legal rights to fire Ms. Lowe, but concluded a settlement is the best course at this time. The board was prepared to take its case to trial, but the potential risks, time, expense, and possible appeals meant the costs of litigation would continue to escalate.” Betsy Russell
Do you believe Lowe's firing was justified?
The Idaho Transportation Department, in a news release today on the state's settlement with former ITD chief Pam Lowe, said, "The Idaho Transportation Board still believes it was appropriate and within its legal rights to fire Ms. Lowe, but concluded a settlement is the best course at this time.” ITD spokesman Jeff Stratten said, “The board was prepared to take its case to trial, but the potential risks, time, expense, and possible appeals meant the costs of litigation would continue to escalate.” The board also continued to dispute Lowe's claims in her wrongful-firing lawsuit; click below to read ITD's full news release.
Pam Lowe, former Idaho Transporation chief, had these comments today on the settlement she reached with the state in her wrongful firing lawsuit, in response to questions from Eye on Boise:
"I recognize that $750,000 is a lot of money, but it is a compromise and was much less than my actual damages." Lowe's attorney fees, back wages and benefits alone added up to close to $500,000. "Comparatively, certainly it's a fraction of the cost to taxpayers of the GARVEE contract," she noted, referring to the $50 million contract with politically well-connected firms that she tried to trim back to $30 million - and that since has swelled to more than $80 million.
Said Lowe, "I tried to resolve this dispute early on, even as early as at the time of my termination, for much less money than what ITD is paying me now."
She added, "As you can see from the settlement agreement, my attorneys received 25 percent of the total amount paid. That's in addition to some other fees that I paid them, and I thought they did a fantastic job. But what I paid for my attorney fees was a fraction of what the state paid, and I do believe I got great value." The state of Idaho paid nearly $600,000 in fees to a private law firm that handled its end of the case, and more bills still could come in.
"I'm certainly happy to put this behind me," Lowe said. "I've spent my entire career as a public servant dedicated to transparency and to transportation, and I've focused on saving Idaho taxpayers money while constructing the transportation system." She said, "I'm a positive person and I'm glad to take a positive step and put this litigation behind me and be able to move on with my life. I'm proud of what I accomplished at ITD."
Attached to the settlement, the ITD board gave Lowe a letter of recommendation for future jobs. "As their employment letter states, throughout my career at ITD including my term as director, I did my job. And that letter was significant," she said. "I had nothing but positive performance evaluations, and my last written evaluation by the chairman of the board said I was an exceptional manager and saved Idaho $50 million. So I'm pleased with my accomplishments at the Idaho Transportation Department."
The state of Idaho is paying $750,000 to former Transportation Director Pam Lowe to settle her wrongful-firing lawsuit, bringing the state's total cost for the case to $1.34 million. That's because Idaho already has paid $590,833 to the private law firm it hired to defend it against Lowe's lawsuit, according to information obtained under the Idaho Public Records Law; more bills may yet come due.
Lowe, the department's first female director, charged she was fired without cause, because she resisted political pressure against reducing a giant contract with a politically well-connected firm; she also alleged gender discrimination. She was replaced by a man who started at a salary $22,000 higher than hers.
The settlement, released today after final papers were filed in federal court this morning, includes a glowing job recommendation for Lowe, signed by the chairman of the Idaho Transportation Board. You can read my full story here at spokesman.com.
State pays another $35K to law firm for defense in Pam Lowe wrongful firing case; bill up to almost $600K
Public records revealed today that the state has sent another $34,594 payment to the private law firm it hired to defend the state Transportation Board against a wrongful-firing lawsuit from ousted former state Transportation Director Pam Lowe. Lowe, the department's first female chief, recently settled her lawsuit, which charged both gender discrimination and political pressure; the settlement hasn't yet been disclosed. The state's legal bill to the law firm of Holland & Hart now adds up to nearly $600,000 - more precisely, $590,833.
Coeur d'Alene could become proud owners of around five miles of waterfront property. Oh, and $3 million cash. Before the city agrees to take that land, and the $3 million check that would come with it from the Idaho Transportation Department, it wants to know what everyone thinks about the proposal. "There's certainly some value to look at," Mayor Sandi Bloem said of the deal sitting in the city of Coeur d'Alene's lap. "The question is, do we want to move in that direction?" The deal would give the city around five miles of East Coeur d'Alene Lake Drive, the old highway, from the city limit line at Silver Beach to just west of Higgens Point. The city would also get $3 million. In return, the city would take over maintenance of the road. Annual upkeep on the road would cost the city $13,160, street superintendent Tim Martin estimated. That would be paint for striping, labor costs and 11 pass-throughs by snowplows, which is the typical amount for an arterial road each winter/Tom Hasslinger, Coeur d'Alene Press. More here. (Shawn Gust Coeur d'Alene Press photo of Coeur d'Alene Lake Drive)
Question: What's not to like about this deal?
The Idaho Transportation Department and law enforcement agencies across the state are partnering up for an anti-aggressive driving push - including intensive patrols on popular routes focusing on speeding and other aggressive driving behaviors - from Aug. 1-13.
The reason: Idaho has higher rates of crashes involving aggressive driving than the nation, and aggressive driving was a contributing factor in nearly half of Idaho car crashes in 2011. Speeding is a factor in more than a third of Idaho's traffic deaths.
“Law enforcement is not just writing tickets for bad driving behavior," said Boise Police Chief Mike Masterson, whose agency is among 49 joining in the two-week enforcement push. "Law enforcement agencies across the state are partnering to target aggressive drivers and motorcycle riders to make our roads safer for Idahoans who want to arrive home safe to their families.” Click below for ITD's full announcement.
Popkey: State spends $$ to send Hart to ALEC confab, hire PR firm on Lowe case; IEA spends to back Repubs
Among a boatload of interesting items posted on the Idaho Statesman's Idaho Politics blog by columnist Dan Popkey are these:
* At least five Idaho lawmakers are off to Salt Lake this week for the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) conference, including defeated Rep. Phil Hart, R-Athol, who is traveling at state expense, as is Rep. Vito Barbieri, R-Dalton Gardens. Popkey reports that Sen. Patti Anne Lodge, R-Huston, the Idaho state chair for ALEC, opted to go at her own expense; read his full post here.
* In the primary election, the Idaho Education Association funneled $9,320 into a new PAC called Idaho Republicans for our Schools, which used the money for robo-calls supporting five GOP legislative candidates: GOP Sens. Shawn Keough, Tim Corder and Dean Cameron, and GOP candidates Stan Bastian and Alan Ward. Rick Jones of Rathdrum, IEA vice president, a Republican and the treasurer of the new PAC, told Popkey, "There are many Idaho educators who are Republicans. What we're saying is let's vote for Republicans who support public education, they're not mutually exclusive." You can read Popkey's full item here.
* Word that Holland & Hart, the private law firm hired by the state to defend it against former ITD chief Pam Lowe's wrongful-firing lawsuit, spent $4,419 in state money to hire Gallatin Public Affairs Group for "litigation assistance" in the first half of 2010, including advice on how the lawsuit would be portrayed in the news media. Read the full report here.
The Idaho Transportation Board, meeting in Coeur d'Alene today, voted to move up nine major road construction projects around the state, saying cost savings and interest savings are allowing them to push them up. Three of the projects, all in the Treasure Valley, also will tap $80 million in existing GARVEE bonding authority for part of the project cost; they will reconstruct the Meridian Road, Broadway and Gowen Road interchanges on I-84, with work scheduled to start in 2014.
The other projects include straightening and realigning U.S. 2 from Lake Street to Cedar Street in Sandpoint, on which construction will start in 2013; realigning U.S. 95 from Thorn Creek to Moscow, a seven-mile project now scheduled to start construction in 2015; restoring four miles of pavement on I-84 from the Meridian Interchange to Five Mile Road, which will start in late 2012; and construction of a new eastbound interchange at the junction of I-84 and U.S. 93 near Twin Falls, on which work will start in late 2012. Click below for the ITD board's full announcement.
The state of Idaho's legal bill for fighting the wrongful termination lawsuit from former Transportation Director Pam Lowe: $540,479 and counting. Information obtained under the Idaho Public Records Law shows that's how much the state has paid the Boise law firm of Holland & Hart for the case thus far; the case has now been settled, though final papers still are to be filed in court. The last payment was made March 8, according to state records. The Idaho Transportation Department hired prominent attorney Newal Squyres of the firm, who when hired was the president of the Idaho State Bar, to defend the state against the suit; Lowe won a major ruling on March 31, when a federal magistrate held that she was not, as the state had argued, an "at-will" employee who could be dismissed without cause.
Lowe's lawsuit, which charged political pressure, sex discrimination and more in her dismissal, was filed in 2009 after the ITD board abruptly fired the professional engineer and longtime employee; she was ITD’s first female director.
Idaho Gov. Butch Otter today, asked about the state's three-year fight against Lowe's lawsuit and the resulting legal bill, said, "I'm not sure I'm allowed to say anything about anything - everything's sealed."
Former Idaho Transportation Director Pam Lowe, contacted at her new job in Delaware, said of her settlement with the state of Idaho in her wrongful-firing lawsuit, "All I can tell you is this has been resolved, and I'm pleased with the resolution. … I can't talk about what's in it. I just can tell you that I'm very pleased to have it resolved."
Lowe said, "I'm just really excited about looking to the future." She's currently working as financial director for the state Department of Transportation in Delaware. "I'm enjoying the challenges here and I'm doing a lot of fascinating, interesting things," she said. "They hired me to work on some projects and I'm going to continue to do that. So I'm excited about the things I'm actually accomplishing here, but Idaho is my home and I do plan to return." She added, "My house and my husband and my family are still in Boise, and that's still my home."
The state of Idaho has settled a lawsuit filed by fired former Transportation Director Pam Lowe, who charged she was illegally let go for standing up to political pressure and was discriminated against because she was female. Lowe was the Idaho Transportation Department's first female director; after she was fired, she was replaced by a man who is being paid $22,000 a year more than she made.
No information was immediately available on the terms of the settlement; Lowe had sought reinstatement in her job, back pay and benefits, and attorney fees and costs as well as damages for emotional distress. Just the back pay, benefits and attorney fees would add up to close to half a million dollars. Lowe , a professional engineer, was a longtime ITD employee, starting there in 1993 and rising to director in January of 2007. She was named the department’s first female district engineer in 2000.
In April, she won a key ruling in the case, when U.S. Magistrate Judge Ron Bush ruled that Lowe wasn't an “at-will” employee who could be dismissed without cause, as the state had argued. She contended her firing came because she tried to scale back a big contract with a politically well-connected firm; that she was fired without cause and without being allowed a hearing; and that she was discriminated against because she’s female. You can read my full story here at spokesman.com.
Opponents of megaload transports through Idaho's scenic Highway 12 river corridor have issued the following statement on Imperial Oil/ExxonMobil's withdrawal of its permit application to the state of Montana for the loads:
"The Rural People of Highway 12-Fighting Goliath feel gratified that the industrialization of the beautiful Lochsa-Clearwater U.S.12 corridor has, for now, been stopped and that the Imperial Oil/ExxonMobil threat to north central Idaho's outdoor recreation paradise and its single growing industry, tourism, has been removed."
Meanwhile, a lawsuit from Idaho Rivers United still is pending in federal court, charging that the U.S. Forest Service and the Federal Highway Administration have failed to enforce federal laws including the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act because they haven't moved to stop megaload transports through the designated wild and scenic river corridor.
Imperial Oil/ExxonMobil has withdrawn its application to the state of Montana to haul more than 200 megaloads of oil sands equipment over Lolo Pass and through northwestern Montana into Canada. The company said it's already brought in all the loads it needs for the first phase of its oil sands project via other routes, the Associated Press reports.
Imperial spokesman Pius Rolheiser told the AP that the company has contracted for the demolition of a huge test module that has been sitting in a parking lot at Lolo Hot Springs since May 4, 2011. The load will be removed in chunks that won't require oversized permits.
The proposal to haul the giant, oversized loads across Idaho's scenic HIghway 12 to Lolo Pass drew legal challenges and protests in Idaho as well, though lawmakers and Gov. Butch Otter welcomed the prospect. The three-story-high loads would have been wide enough to block both lanes of the two-lane road, creating rolling roadblocks. In Montana, environmental and traffic issues were raised about the route, and Missoula County, the National Wildlife Federation, the Montana Environmental Information Center and the Montana Chapter of the Sierra Club all filed suit.
Idaho's Highway 12, a designated state and federal scenic byway, runs along two wild and scenic river corridors dotted with campgrounds, hot springs and historic sites, and roughly follows the route taken by explorers Lewis and Clark into the region two centuries ago. Click below for a full report from the AP in Missoula.
The Idaho Transportation Department has issued the following statement on a federal judge's ruling over the weekend in favor of fired former ITD Director Pam Lowe:
"The department is disappointed in the ruling and will consider an appeal. Based on this ruling, the next step is to determine whether or not the Idaho Transportation Board provided due process to Ms. Lowe. The ruling does not address claims of gender discrimination and wrongful firing. No schedule has been set by the court to hear these claims."
"I am absolutely elated," fired former ITD Director Pam Lowe said this morning, after a federal judge sided with her over the weekend in a key ruling in her wrongful termination lawsuit. "It absolutely vindicated me and what I had been saying, and that is that the board was happy with my work, I had done a good job, I had had nothing but positive comments from the board as well as certainly my formal evaluations, but that the board succumbed to political blackmail and pressure from John McGee when he ran that bill."
McGee, then chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee, introduced legislation in 2009 to strip the Idaho Transportation Board of the ability to hire and fire the director, though the bill didn't pass. "He was interested in helping his campaign contributors," Lowe said, "and I didn't want to do what he wanted done with that contract, which was to throw a bunch more money at them that didn't need to happen, and he ran that bill to strip the board of their powers." McGee, who resigned from the Senate this year in the wake of sexual harassment allegations from a female Senate staffer, couldn't immediately be reached for comment; you can read my full story here at spokesman.com.
In 2009, a multimillion-dollar contract with two Idaho firms to oversee major bonded highway construction projects in the state was being cut back; the lead firm, URS, formerly Washington Group, was a big donor to Gov. Butch Otter's election campaigns, as well as to McGee's. Lowe said the governor's chief of staff pressured her not to reduce the contract, and McGee's bill was in response to her move.
"I had more than one board member tell me that it was McGee and it was blackmail," she said. "They had no reason other than pure politics to terminate me." She added, "It was purely political reasons, and it was certainly not one of the four reasons that the judge has said needed to happen in order for a proper termination to occur."
U.S. Magistrate Judge Ron Bush has ruled in favor of fired ITD Director Pam Lowe on a key point in her wrongful-firing case: That she wasn't an "at-will" employee who could be dismissed without cause. It's a significant win for Lowe, who contends her firing came because she tried to scale back a big contract with a politically well-connected firm; that she was fired without cause and without being allowed a hearing; and that she was discriminated against because she's female. She was the first woman to head the Idaho Transportation Department; she since has been replaced by a man who is being paid $22,000 a year more than she made.
The judge's ruling, issued Saturday, opens the way for consideration of the gender-bias and political pressure claims.
At issue was the 1974 law creating the ITD director's position, saying, "The director shall serve at the pleasure of the board and may be removed by the board for inefficiency, neglect of duty, malfeasance or nonfeasance in office."
The department didn't cite any of the four reasons from the law in firing Lowe. Instead, the ITD board said in 2009, that Lowe's firing would "help the department continue improving customer service, economy of operations, accountability and our relations with the Legislature." In court documents, the state contended Lowe was fired for not adequately dealing with the Legislature, which it said meant she was doing a poor job despite good reviews for her internal management of the department. You can read the judge's 57-page decision here.