ATLANTA — Former state transportation commissioner Gena Evans said she wasn’t surprised when the state transportation board voted to fire her last week.
"After 14 months of a continuous vote of confidence it was not surprising," Evans said Tuesday in an interview with The Times, her first since being removed from office.
"I realized pretty quickly that a part of my job was to count (board member) votes, and that was something I didn’t want to do for a living," she said.
Evans had some indication that the vote may be coming and met privately on Feb. 25, the day before her firing, with Gov. Sonny Perdue, who hand-picked her for the DOT job in 2007.
Evans held the dual positions of transportation commissioner and executive director of the State Road and Tollway Authority. She did not receive a salary for the SRTA job until Monday, when it became her only job.
The authority, which began as an oversight panel for the Ga. 400 tollway, has expanded its role in transportation funding in the past few years. The board is chaired by Gov. Sonny Perdue. His budget director, Trey Childress, serves as vice chairman. Two Gainesville men, former state Rep. Stacey Reece and insurance executive Joe T. Wood Jr., are the other members of the authority.
"I’ve had the SRTA job since January 2007," Evans said. "I’ve signed all the contracts and was involved in its reorganization."
Evans said she met privately with State Transportation Board Chairman Bill Kuhlke and vice chairman Larry Walker following the board’s closed-door session to decide her fate.
"There was never a discussion as to why," she said. "They just said there were enough votes to vote me out and wanted me to resign. I told them absolutely not. If they wanted me gone they were going to have to walk out in public and raise their hand."
Some board members were said to have been angry when Evans was absent from a board meeting a week earlier to take a ski vacation with her son.
"I got permission from the board chair and vice-chair to be out of town on vacation," Evans said. "Last year, I missed the exact same meeting because it is the week my son has winter break. I asked the board members if they wanted to move the meeting and they said no."
Evans’ selection as DOT commissioner was not without controversy. Her selection over state Rep. Vance Smith, R-Pine Mountain, was a political turf battle between Perdue and House Speaker Glenn Richardson. Smith, chairman of the state House Transportation Committee, was Richardson’s choice. In October 2007, Evans survived a 7-6 vote that placed her in charge of DOT’s 6,000 employees and a $2.1 billion budget.
Last April, news of her budding romance with then-board chairman Mike Evans, a former state representative, came to light, leading to Mike Evans’ resignation from the powerful board. They were married in the summer and she now divides her time between Mike Evans’ home in Forsyth County and a home in Newnan where her son is finishing high school.
She admits there was a morale problem when she arrived at the agency and it never got better.
"There’s not an agency in state government that has good morale right now with all of the budget cuts, layoffs and furloughs," she said. "I came in with low morale, and I was realistic with the employees that we didn’t have the money to pay the salaries in (fiscal year) ’10 in the budget."
She admits she ruffled some feathers when she brought in some key people, including Kevin Clark of Flowery Branch, who resigned last week as the agency’s chief operating officer.
"I had to fight the board to create a chief operating officer position," Evans said. "It was a fight to bring in somebody I could count on and could trust. There is not a CEO in the country that doesn’t need three or four people underneath them directly to carry out the direction of the department."
She said she had no say-so in many of the agency’s other top positions, which are filled by the board.
Clark’s resignation is effective March 31. He had previously served as executive director of the Lake Lanier Islands Development Authority.
Evans said she has spoken with the governor’s staff since her departure from DOT and believes she has the support of both the governor and the lieutenant governor.
The two top leaders, along with Richardson, have proposed the creation of a State Transportation Authority, which would effectively render the transportation board powerless.
The authority would be administered by a secretary of transportation, a position Evans says she has thought about.
"I’m keeping all my options open," she said. "But I will tell you that my love is in vertical construction. That’s where I grew up and what I’ve been doing for 20 years."