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Our Views: We need fresh blood for DOT board
Its high time to end practice of recycling lawmakers for state transportation posts
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For the third time in less than two years, legislators representing the 9th Congressional District soon will vote to select a new representative on the state Department of Transportation board.

We have a suggestion: Let's try something novel and not appoint another former state lawmaker to the panel that far too often in the past has been a political playground for politicians and their pals.

After only a year in the seat, DOT board member Steve Farrow of Dalton announced his resignation from the board, opening the way for a new appointment. Farrow is a former state legislator. He replaced Mike Evans, a former state legislator. Evans replaced Bill Hasty, another former legislator.

In fact, you have to go back decades to find when this part of Georgia wasn't represented on the DOT board by someone other than a former lawmaker.

It's time to break the cycle and quit prolonging the careers of former politicians by putting them in position to do political favors for their pals in the Capitol without having to curry favor with voters.

The beauty of the DOT board from a legislator's point of view is that it provides the perfect political sandbox in which lawmakers can play. State representatives and senators from counties in the 9th District get to select who serves on the board, via secret vote, with no direct input from, nor accountability to, the people of the district.

It's not just lawmakers from the 9th District who like to reward their former and current colleagues with DOT board appointments. It happens all across Georgia. Farrow's departure leaves two former lawmakers on the 13-member board, including one who resigned his legislative seat to accept the appointment, necessitating a special election.

DOT Commissioner Vance Smith also is a former legislator. He, too, resigned his seat to take his new job.

The DOT is one of the most powerful and expensive arms of state government, and for decades has been one of the most political. Early in their careers, lawmakers learn that one of the surest ways to garner votes in the district is to bring home the promise of new roads, better intersections and more pavement. What better way to get the inside track on road projects than to have a former colleague who owes you favors sitting in a seat on the governing board?

With a little more oversight and a little less political pandering, the DOT might not be in the financial mess it is today. A report on the agency earlier this month led the governor to liken the DOT's financial record-keeping to that of the infamous Enron Corp. The federal government has frozen funds coming to the state for mass transit projects because of the agency's poor financial management.

A particular problem with DOT finances revealed by earlier audits is that for years the agency has promised and started construction projects without the money to complete them. We wonder how many of those projects were initiated to help local politicians.

It isn't that former lawmakers aren't qualified or can make a positive impact; some have. But they all are part of the same old buddy-buddy system, accustomed to making back-room deals, negotiating power plays and offering state services as bargaining chips in the give-and-take of legislative compromise.

Former state House member Stacey Reece of Gainesville is actively seeking appointment to the board. Reece served four years in the House and earned the favor of Glenn Richardson, who appointed him as a powerful "hawk" to help push the speaker's position on legislative issues.

Reece also left the Capitol under a cloud of suspicion for ethical misconduct after he allowed lobbyists, who routinely seek to win favor with state lawmakers, to hold a bridal shower for him at an upscale Atlanta club. The friendly lobbyists even sent out invitations suggesting which gifts other lawmakers might want to buy for Reece. Many of his colleagues in the General Assembly were quick to distance themselves from the potential conflict of interest inherit in such a situation, but Reece never saw a problem with it.

Richardson supported Reece in an earlier bid to defeat Evans for re-election to the DOT post, and when that failed as well, appointed him to serve on the State Road and Tollway Authority. There's little doubt Reece is beholden to the speaker for any political profile he continues to have.

Reece's candidacy for the vacant DOT position is strongly championed by Rep. Carl Rogers of Gainesville, who seems to feel having someone from Hall County on the board is more important than any other qualification or questions about personal integrity.

Is yet another former legislator with more than his share of questionable baggage the best we can do for something as important as overseeing the operation of the state DOT?

In truth, there are other former legislators interested in the 9th District seat, and Reece likely has as much, if not more, to offer than they do. But we have to believe that within the 15 counties in the district there are others who have proven themselves in different arenas and can bring to the DOT board the fresh vision and perspectives it needs to rebuild itself into an efficient governmental agency, not just another political football.

Other districts have learned that DOT board members without legislative legacies can be just as effective and successful, if not more so. It's time for the mountains to give it a try. But the only way that can happen is if the senators and representatives of the district decide to change the status quo. Traditionally, the best way to make that happen is to let them feel the irritation of their constituents.

We hope voters of the county and the 9th District will join us in telling our legislators that it's time to quit recycling old politicians into new appointments and instead find potential DOT appointees who offer fresh ideas, proven leadership, business acumen and a commitment to the public good.

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