Jayne: Firing of transportation secretary clearly about politics

By Greg Jayne, Columbian Opinion Editor

Published:

 

Greg Jayne, Opinion page editor

The reasons still weren’t clear.

Senate Republicans had essentially fired state Transportation Secretary Lynn Peterson, had delivered a variety of quotes about why, and had endured withering criticism from Gov. Jay Inslee and newspaper editorials throughout the state. And while there certainly have been problems with the department, the reasons for the abrupt thumbs-down vote on Peterson’s confirmation still weren’t clear.

Sen. Don Benton, R-Vancouver, blasted the department on the Senate floor for reaching out to Oregon to try to solve the conundrum of the Interstate 5 Bridge. It’s not surprising that the depth of Benton’s reasoning would involve beating a horse that has been dead for three years; in order to provide himself with some relevancy as a senator, he needs the public to believe the Columbia River Crossing could be revived. When you are bereft of diplomacy or creative solutions, you convince the people the Bogeyman exists.

But Sen. Ann Rivers, R-La Center, was a different story. Rivers is thoughtful and often seeks solutions, yet after the firing, she told reporter Lauren Dake of The Columbian: “This is not about Lynn Peterson; she’s a nice lady. But I have often found nice ladies don’t often succeed in big business. You need someone who has had their boots on the ground, in terms of engineering.”

Aside from the obvious sexism of the quote, Rivers ignored Peterson’s strong engineering qualifications. You know, such as a master’s degree and working as a highway design and construction engineer for the state of Wisconsin. To her credit, Rivers posted an apology at Columbian.com “for my extraordinary poor choice in words.” But that didn’t lend any clarity to the reasons behind Peterson’s ouster, which meant that a phone call to Rivers was in order.

“This isn’t about some bloodlust or the way it’s been characterized,” Rivers said. “I just felt very strongly that this was the right thing. This was very difficult; it was the right vote, but it was very difficult voting for my district, which is very fiscally conservative. We pay a ton of money in gas tax, and I’d just like to know that it’s going to projects.”

To be certain, there have been problems with the Department of Transportation: the disastrous tunnel project under the streets of Seattle, a disastrous floating bridge project across Lake Washington, and a hackles-raising tolling project on I-405 in the Seattle area. It should be noted that Peterson inherited the tunneling fiasco and the Highway 520 bridge debacle, but also that those problems have stubbornly lingered under her watch. And it should be noted that the I-405 tolling project had bipartisan support in the Legislature — support that should have lawmakers pointing fingers at themselves as well at Peterson.

Blame goes to Inslee?

Rivers, instead, points the finger at Inslee, saying that the governor ignored numerous exhortations from lawmakers about failings at the transportation department.

“The Senate is not the HR department; we are the accountability department,” she said. “It’s not our job to right the ship; it’s our job to tell the captain when the ship is listing. As far as the agencies go, the buck stops with the governor.”

And while Rivers makes an impassioned case for why Peterson needed to be fired, claims from Senate Republicans that they are genuflecting at the altar of accountability fall short of credibility. Peterson’s department, after all, oversaw the rebuilding of Highway 530 after the Oso landslide, plus the construction of a new I-5 bridge over the Skagit River after an over-height truck caused its collapse — projects that earned much praise. More poignantly, the Legislature has largely ignored its own accountability — four years and counting — in addressing funding for public schools.

All of which suggests Peterson’s firing, which took place without notice and without allowing her to defend her record, had as much to do with election-year politics as with anything else. And that thought might finally lend a little clarity to the situation.