Our Opinion: ODOT records must be made public
Last month we asked a top official from one of Oregon's counties what his top three priorities were for the 2017 legislative session.
"That's easy," he said. "Transportation, transportation and transportation."
House Speaker Tina Kotek, Senate President Peter Courtney and Gov. Kate Brown all put passing a comprehensive transportation package at the top of their 2017 to-do lists as well.
In fact, one of the few things that unites Republican and Democratic lawmakers, local and state officials, and urban and rural Oregonians is the desire to maintain, improve and build highways, roads and bridges in our state.
And yet efforts to do that are being undermined by an unlikely source — a private company located 2,500 miles from Salem.
As reported by the Portland Tribune last week, McKinsey & Co., the New York-based consulting firm hired to review the Oregon Department of Transportation's management practices, is refusing to release public documents used to complete its report.
The state paid McKinsey $1 million to conduct a thorough review of the state transportation agency, which has been criticized by outside observers and its own employees for poor management and shoddy quality controls.
It was aimed at placating — or reassuring — lawmakers who are nervous about boosting ODOT funding this session. Instead, the review has fueled more criticism.
McKinsey's Jan. 30 final ODOT report included an unusually glowing executive summary, but then detailed a culture at the agency that discourages dissent, wastes money and lacks accountability and strategic vision.
When the Pamplin Media Group and EO Media Group requested an earlier draft version of the report from the state, McKinsey objected, saying the draft should not be released. It also is resisting the Tribune's request for copies of interviews conducted by the firm and comments from a survey of ODOT employees. McKinsey also failed to interview knowledgeable agency critics.
So whose documents are they?
Portland Tribune reporter Nick Budnick put the question to State Archivist Mary Beth Herkert late last week. Unless there's a specific exemption McKinsey can point to, "records created by a third-party contractor doing work for a public agency are public records," Herkert replied. "Public funds created the records, so they are 'owned' by (the state). These records must be turned over to the agency upon request or when the project has been completed and include all records, not just a final report."
What's more, McKinsey's contract with Oregon clearly states that all "tangible items" developed during its research are "work product," which it describes as state property.
Still, McKinsey balked and threatened to sue if the state releases the public records.
That stonewalling prompted the Senate's top-ranking Republican, Sen. Ted Ferrioli, to call on his colleagues to withhold support for ODOT funding until lawmakers, reporters and the public can take a look at the draft review and all the source material McKinsey gathered. "Without that, you essentially have a PR document," he told the Tribune last week.
It's not just Ferrioli who's miffed. Last week, the Bend Bulletin's editorial board called for the release of all documents related to the review:
"Lawmakers are being denied the information they need to assure themselves that the review was done well and that McKinsey did not somehow whitewash negative information about the agency," the Bulletin wrote.
The state Justice Department on Feb. 28 called on McKinsey to honor the Tribune's Jan. 26 request. That's a start — but the department also should insist that the information be made public immediately.
In a legislative session in which lawmakers will be asked to raise college tuition, increase class sizes and cut services to the poor, lawmakers cannot, in good conscience, raise taxes or fees to pay for roads until the public knows that ODOT is a good steward of the money.
Until the public can see everything that McKinsey found out about ODOT, we will be hard-pressed to support a costly transportation package. And we suspect fiscally minded lawmakers will feel the same.
That means those who are looking for transportation funding this year just got a new set of priorities: Disclosure, disclosure and disclosure.