Ekern Selected as VDOT Commissioner

The Virginian-Pilot, Times-Dispatch and Associated Press are reporting that Gov. Timothy M. Kaine has selected David Ekern, who retired last month as Idaho’s transportation director, to run the Virginia Department of Transportation.

According to Christina Nuckols with the Pilot, House Transportation Chairman Leo Wardrup, R-Virginia Beach, who interviewed the three finalists for the job, described Ekern as an “idea man.” Said Waldrup: “The governor is looking for someone who can bring a fresh approach to things.”

Nuckols quotes Sen. Dean Cameron, the Republican chairman of Idaho’s budget committee, as describing Ekern as a “straight forward person” who was instrumental in persuading state leaders to spend more on roads. “He challenged our thinking about how we needed to approach road construction and how we were addressing our transportation needs. He challenged the status quo.”

Cameron said Ekern met with resistance from some lawmakers concerned about increased borrowing to pay for the plan and from state bureaucrats who disliked privatization efforts.

Hopefully, the Governor will explain his thinking behind his selection of Ekern when he makes a formal announcement later today.

Update: Here’s the money graph from the Governor’s press release:

David Ekern is a recognized national leader in transportation operations, management, context sensitive design, and innovative program delivery for the 21st Century,” Governor Kaine said. “He has the vision and leadership to take VDOT to the next level – with a focus on performance, accountability, innovation, and smarter integration of transportation and land use planning.

And reaction from House Speaker William J. Howell, R-Stafford:

When announcing his search for a new VDOT Commissioner on February 2, Governor Kaine stressed the importance of finding “a commissioner who can serve multiple governors.” To truly fulfill that charge, Mr. Ekern will have to be open to new ideas, innovative approaches and possess the ability to resist the reflexive tendency to first call upon taxpayers to solve every challenge facing government. …

I share Delegate Wardrup’s view, as quoted in this morning’s Richmond Times-Dispatch, that by selecting a Commissioner from outside the agency, the Governor is sending a very encouraging signal that his administration may be open to the significant reforms and organizational transformation so desperately needed at VDOT.

Next week, House Republicans will be announcing a series of new public policy innovations to continue our ongoing overhaul of VDOT. We remain focused and committed to making this unwieldy state agency more responsive to changing the way it conceives of and delivers transportation services and more accountable for improvements based upon relevant performance measures, such as reducing traffic congestion.

Obviously, we hope that Mr. Ekern shares our positive vision. I am optimistic that his selection is a sign that the Governor will welcome the package of long-overdue reforms and much-needed innovations for the agency.

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6 responses to “Ekern Selected as VDOT Commissioner”

  1. Anonymous Avatar

    Idaho Statesman – 8/18/06

    Embattled Idaho Transportation Department Director Dave Ekern announced his retirement Thursday, and Gov. Jim Risch quickly named an interim director.

    Risch appointed longtime director Dwight Bower, who headed the state’s second-largest agency from 1993 to 2003, to oversee the department while the state Board of Transportation conducts a search for a new director.

    Ekern’s resignation came after an independent report criticizing communication and morale within the department, which manages $700 million a year in road spending and is in the early stages of planning the $1.2 billion Connecting Idaho highway repair project.

    On Thursday morning, Ekern submitted a resignation letter to the seven-member board, chaired by recent Risch appointee Frank Bruneel, a former state lawmaker.

    “My direction to Dwight is the same as I gave to Frank: Move the department forward,” Risch said.

    Earlier this month, a study requested by the board reported that under Ekern, staffers harbored an “unusual amount of fear” over the agency’s changing role.

    So far, the department has awarded two contracts worth $43 million and conducted its own work for the design phase of the first six projects under Connecting Idaho, the state’s largest infrastructure overhaul in decades.

    The plan departs from Idaho’s pay-as-you-go method of financing roads projects, instead selling bonds to launch road projects fast enough to avoid inflation.

    Transportation officials will pitch the first shovel on the first project Friday on U.S. 30 in the eastern Idaho town of Lava Hot Springs, Risch said.

    The Republican governor declined to say whether the internal study contributed to Ekern’s departure. There was no answer at Ekern’s home telephone Thursday afternoon.

    The 16-page study, first obtained by the Associated Press through an open-records request, included excerpts from 60 department employees interviewed by retired transportation chief Darrell Manning.

    The report said department leaders failed to communicate effectively with the board. Many of the department’s 1,800 employees reported that they received too little positive feedback from Ekern and transportation brass.

    “Under Ekern, the department was asked to make changes to the organization,” said Jeff Stratten, transportation spokesman. “Changes to organization can be troubling and disconcerting.”

    In his resignation letter, Ekern said he is leaving to pursue “two potentially significant career opportunities.”

    He said it would be unwise to angle for new work while he remained a state employee.

    Ekern received a $130,000 annual salary. He will remain on the state payroll until Aug. 25, exhausting his remaining paid vacation time, Stratten said.

    Bower, who led the agency for nine years prior to Ekern’s appointment, will take over Sept. 5.

    Since leaving the department, Bower has worked as a top executive in Boise’s branch office of the Chicago-based transportation engineering firm HW Lochner, Inc. The consulting company has several active contracts with Idaho for highway engineering design. Bower was not immediately available for comment.

    The department’s process for procuring contracts has sturdy mechanisms in place to prevent conflict of interest, Stratten said.

    “Mr. Bower has severed his relationship with HW Lochner,” he said. “The director is not involved in the selection of design engineering firms.”

  2. Toomanytaxes Avatar

    Interesting article. I’m not sure whether Mr. Ekern’s difficulties with his employees is a good or bad sign for his future in Virginia. But welcome to the Commonwealth, Mr. Ekern.

  3. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    I think Mr. Elkerns troubles …. are troublesome… for us.

    There’s a term called “Change Agent”.

    One can GOOGLE the phrase, but here’s some typical words:

    “Change agents always need the ability to get all people affected by the project involved, to ensure their support and commitment. This requires a high competency as the basis for acceptance as well as soft skills, which are often summarized as emotional intelligence. This includes the ability to communicate, to understand and to take into account opinions and doubts of others.”


    This does not sound like Ekern.

    I’ll admit that really good Change Agents usually work in private industry… where they are adequately compensated for those critical skills….

    Perhaps Mr. Ekern has “grown” and is continuing to “grow” as a result of his failures.. (we all do or should).

    But if big changes are ahead at VDOT… believe me.. the “skinny” on Mr. Ekern will spread like wildfire in that Agency long before his arrival.. and it will be up to him to climb that hill… and if I were a betting person.. I’m not sure the “smart money” would be on him.

  4. Will Vehrs Avatar

    Larry, great points. I have never really seen a change agent in state government, except perhaps for Philip Shucet. But Shucet was at VDOT, the very agency where we think we need the most change. Did Shucet fail, did he only make small inroads toward change, or did he change a culture that is just waiting for a leader to take charge?

    Mr. Ekern’s early actions will tell us a lot, except that they won’t be covered in the press. Maybe someone will start a VDOT blog. Who does he meet with first–employees and key staff? Does he start giving speeches to outside groups before he informs the agency of his message? Does he install his old network in key jobs?

    The news from Idaho may or may not be troubling. Anybody who does anything significant to change the status quo is going to make some enemies and encounter resistance. Battling an entrenched bureaucracy resistant to change is one thing; imposing one’s will high-handedly without recognizing the need to involve the bureaucracy is quite another.

  5. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    re: “Will Vehrs said…”

    I agree with all of your points. VDOT is an entrenched bureacracy with an entrenched culture that many (including me) believe is part and parcel of our transportation problems (and VDOT is not alone among state DOTs).

    The basic issue is a lack of accountability and a lack of any kind of a rational process to ensure cost effectiveness.

    For what it is worth – I think our schools don’t operate significantly differently except that with the advent of SOLs and NCLB… at least we’re starting to actually measure results..( the fun of change.. comes next).

    VDOT is a road-building agency. It’s their roots. They never were intended to build and maintain complex networks – which are what transportation systems are.

    It would be like Verizon saying.. they only build cooper wire along certain corridors and it’s up to someone else to take care of fiber-optic or cell towers.

    The difference is if Verizon operates that way..they’re out of here.. in short order.

    But VDOT… doesn’t depend on satisfied customers or have to compete with another entity to stay in the game… all they have to do is put things they cannot afford on a list… and in their mind.. they’ve done their job.

    When they’re out of money.. they come back and ask for more… to continue to do business the way THEY THINK they should be doing it regardless of whether their customers are happy…

    In years past… VDOT has indeed been so powerful that they could actually endanger an elected official by merely saying they had run out of money and could not build a road that had been promised in that officials district.

    So… yes… change won’t come easy.. and yes… in the end.. there almost surely will be claims of high-handed imposition of changes… which probably will have some truth to them.

    Schucets BIG accomplishment (and I don’t denegrate it).. was to convince/force a state agency to bring in projects on time and on budget. Huh?

    Excuse me.. can you imagine Dominion Power’s construction arm coming back to Corporate and saying with pride that 80% of their work is on time and on budget?

    Do Virginians… Virginia’s Senators/Delegates .. Kaine want to see VDOT continue this way?

    I think we have the answer.

  6. Anonymous Avatar

    The truth should be easy enough to find out, IF anyone cares. Ekern falsified his resume to get the Idaho job; he was NEVER the “Assistant Commissioner” in Minnesota. In fact. Minnesota took him OUT of a district line position, made him an inconsequential staffer, and then got rid of him entirely by putting him out as a loaned executive. Ekern is a garrulous babbler of meaningless technospeak which leads nowhere. He is an exemplar of putting his fat cat buddies on the consulting payroll. He micromanages with tantrums and demoralises every unit. And he lies to lawmakers. The former Transportation Board Chairman in Idaho, Chuck Winder (once well-respected and serving for many years), fell for Ekern’s ploys and got canned. Idaho is still reeling from Ekern’s gambits and Virginia is sure to follow. What a travesty!



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