Friday, December 17, 2010

TxDOT runs out the clock on interim session external audit report

TxDOT restructuring plan approval postponed until 82nd Legislature


Andy Hogue
The Lone Star Report
Copyright 2010

Whether intentionally or unintentionally, state transportation officials ran out the clock on the 81st Legislature interim session.

The House Transportation Committee, in its last meeting of the interim, was scheduled to hear the final report by the Texas Department of Transportation's Restructuring Council relating to the Grant Thornton management and organizational review (or "the external audit," as it's often referred).

According to William Howard Wolf of the TxDOT Restructuring Council, the report will not be ready until Jan. 5, when a new Legislature is sworn-in.

Crying foul was Rep. Ruth Jones McClendon (D-San Antonio), who accused the Restructuring Council (consisting of Wolf, David Laney and Jay Kimbrough) of adopting "the culture of TxDOT" in doing things on its own with little accountability.

Committee Chairman Joe Pickett (D-El Paso) said he did not suspect anything "sinister" regarding the punting of the report. However, Pickett reminded Wolf that overseeing restructuring was an interim charge of the committee, and postponing the report until after the New Year puts his committee in a bind.

"Come Jan. 5 we're kind of in a limbo situation," Pickett said.

The original plan went something like this:

*On Wednesday, Dec. 15, the Texas Transportation Commission was scheduled to discuss the report during a workshop meeting, followed by a hearing on Thursday, Dec. 16, and subsequent approval.

*Also on Dec. 16, the House Sunset Advisory Committee was expecting some kind of status update on the report (see below for more about that).

*And finally, on Friday, Dec. 17, the House Transportation Committee was set to hear the final report, which Wolf said consists of some 170 recommendations for reforming the state's transportation system's management practices.

"It was my understanding ... before the session began, that this committee would have a full understanding of what your Council was doing, and a full understanding of how you would be implementing the report," an impassioned McClendon said, "and the TxDOT commission members would have seen the report and have adopted the report, before the session started.

She continued: "It was my understanding that before this point in December ... that we would have an understanding of exactly the direction we would be going with TxDOT. And I am sitting here wondering what I'm doing today! ... So why are we here, and why is it that the report is not ready? It appears to me, with all due respect, the Council has taken on the culture of TxDOT -- if we get it to you we do, but if we don't we don't, because we do what we want to do. That's not acceptable. I can't imagine that you, Mr. Kimbrough, and Mr. Laney would delay this ... I know how intelligent you guys are ... To go into another session questioning the situation at TxDOT -- we can't keep going through this over and over again."

Wolf said he was of the impression, based on conversations, that there would be a special session in the summer of 2011 regarding transportation, and that there would be no hurry. "That's what I overheard," he said.

Pickett said that was the first he had heard of plans regarding a special session.

Wolf continued that determining how the Restructuring Council would be structured (how's that for a little irony?) took up the summer and early fall, but work was progressing to have the report ready by mid-December.

"Then [on Dec. 16] we were told, no, that that day was not going to work -- That we needed to postpone this to the next regular meeting of TxDOT ..." Wolf said, of his conversation with Texas Transportation Commissioner Deidre Delisi.

During the Dec. 15 Sunset Advisory Commission meeting Rep. Linda Harper Brown (R-Irving) quizzed Delisi about the external audit report.

"It has been postponed, and I know you've said again and again you would like to try to get the two to coincide, the report and sunset, and you've offered to give us some information some information ahead of time so we can work the two together. Why was it postponed from December to January?" Harper-Brown asked.

"It was my fault," Delisi said. "I forgot that I had a scheduling conflict with my children. And I won't be able to attend the hearing on Thursday (Dec. 16) and I want to be there for it. So I take full responsibility for that fact that it was delayed by a month."

Back at the House Transportation Committee meeting: Pickett said if the report happens to "get lost," the Committee can come up "with some pretty good suggestions" for the next legislative session based on other recommendations.

"How about that, Mr. Wolf?" the chairman said.

Wolf said he would still help with those recommendations, report or no report.

Despite the month-long delay, Wolf gave a cursory overview of the report, which he said at this point is "virtually ready" aside from some tweaking by the Texas Transportation Commission.

"As you're aware ... the Council put together a comprehensive database of the recommendations," he said of an online posting that went live on Oct. 31. "Then went to work on report ... We make several recommendations in there that all come out of the Grant Thornton report ... though the items are prioritized."

Wolf said the Grant Thornton audit was "a template" for the Restructuring Council's report, though the Council is looking at 600 recommendations also made buy the Sunset Commission, the 2030 Commission, and other groups.

Referencing some of the report's recommendations, Wolf said the report approves of TxDOT's search for a Chief Administrative Officer and a Chief Information Officer, which he expects to be hired within the first quarter of 2011.

The report does not address finances in specific, Wolf said, to a question from Rep. Larry Phillips (R-Sherman).

"It was very clear to us that we did not have the portfolio to recommend changes to the Legislature as such that would affect the entire agency, nor were we prepared the address the 1,000 lb. gorilla in the room, which was finance," Wolf said.

TxDOT Restructuring Council Recommendations Tracking Database

Note: LSR Correspondent Mark Lavergne, who attended the Sunset Advisory Commission meeting, contributed to this report.

© The Lone Star Report:

To search TTC News Archives click HERE

To view the Trans-Texas Corridor Blog click HERE