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Hunting for the new MDOT leader

The Mississippi Transportation Commission is in a state of flux, and the uncertainties are clouding just when a new executive director of the Mississippi Department of Transportation will be selected and confirmed.

Earlier this month, Larry “Butch” Brown announced that he was retiring as executive director of MDOT citing his continuing battle with prostate cancer. His retirement becomes effective at the end of June.

The leader of the state’s transportation agency is selected by the three-person Mississippi Transportation Commission. But the commission has one empty seat created by the untimely death of Northern District Transportation Commissioner Bill Minor back in November, and a special run-off election is set for next month to replace him. Also, Southern District Transportation Commissioner Wayne Brown has announced he will not seek another term.

This leaves the timing of finding Butch Brown’s replacement uncertain. Central District Transportation Commissioner Dick Hall, who has been very public about his dislike for Butch Brown, seems to want to fast-track the process, while Wayne Brown wonders if the commission should not take its time.

Hall told the Mississippi Business Journal that his first priority is to receive Butch Brown’s resignation. After that, he is ready to act quickly.

“The special run-off election (to fill Minor’s seat) is Feb. 1, and we will have our first commission meeting Feb. 8. We can start then,” Hall said.

Wayne Brown, though, believes a better course might be to appoint an interim MDOT executive director. He said the commission will have at least two new commissioners soon, and could be all-new next year. His position is to hire an interim, let that person work out the rest of the year, then have the new commission find a permanent replacement.

He said choosing an interim MDOT executive director has another advantage. A permanent replacement must be confirmed by the state Senate. However, he said it is his understanding that an interim executive director would not have to have lawmakers’ approval.

“I’m not sure on that, but I believe that is correct,” Wayne Brown said. “I think it would be smart thing for us to do that.”

When asked how long it would take to find a permanent MDOT executive director, Hall simply said “not long, we can whittle the list down quickly,” but Wayne Brown was more specific, saying two to three months, but added that he would not be surprised or upset if it took longer.

Even with the coming special run-off election, the commission’s make-up is still in doubt. Whoever wins the run-off election next month must run again during the general election. There is no guarantee the candidate who wins the run-off election will win in the general election.

The candidates in the run-off are Mike Tagert of Starkville, president of the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway Development Council, and Nesbit resident John Caldwell Sr., transportation director at the DeSoto County School District. Both men are Republicans.

Caldwell out-pointed Tagert (10,713 to 10,557) in the regular special election. But a large winter storm effected turnout, and many are watching the run-off closely.

Hall, a Republican, and Wayne Brown, a Democrat, were complimentary of both candidates, saying they would be pleased to serve with either man.

When asked what qualities he would want to see in a permanent MDOT executive director, Hall said he has “no preconceived notions. They don’t have to have state government experience, and they don’t have to be an engineer — we have enough of those.” He said he would like to see someone with a good business background and solid management skills.

Wayne Brown agreed in part, pointing out that the person will have to lead an organization boasting 3,300 employees. He added that the person needs to be “a leader and a bridge-builder.”

Mike Pepper wants all of those qualities. Executive director of the Mississippi Road Builders Association, Pepper said he and his members are quite concerned about the uncertainty on the state level. He said Butch Brown “got things done,” and losing Brown, who is also president of the American Association of State Highway Transportation Officials, is a negative for his members.

“Really, what we want is a leader, someone who can get things accomplished,” Pepper said.

Pepper said Butch Brown’s retirement, Minor’s death and Wayne Brown’ departure from the commission is of “obvious concern” to road builders.

Asked about the run-off election, Pepper said the Mississippi Road Builders Association does not endorse candidates. That is not to say his people are not watching, though.

“I mean, common on. We’re road builders,” Pepper said. “If we don’t care who the transportation commissioner is, who does?”

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About Wally Northway

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