JEFFERSON CITY — Lawmakers praised it as one of the first steps in reforming Missouri’s transportation system — a way to increase accountability and restore public confidence.
Yet two years after they overwhelmingly passed legislation creating a “transportation inspector general,” there’s no one on the job.
Actually, there was an inspector general for a while — and then there wasn’t again.
Cynthia Orndoff, a civil engineering professor at MU, was hired May 1 for the position. But she was fired Aug. 4. Now legislators have begun the search again, with the goal of hiring a new transportation inspector general by January.
The saga of the inspector general shows how a politically popular idea can quickly fade from public attention as politics change. But perhaps more than anything, it reveals a recent change in the legislature’s perception of the Missouri Department of Transportation.
The agency best known for building and repairing roads was essentially given a “huge pothole” rating by the public in August 2002, when a $500 million transportation tax plan was rejected by nearly 73 percent of voters.
The legislature responded in 2003 by passing what was touted as an initial step toward restoring public trust in the agency. The bill realigned the terms of the six-member Highways and Transportation Commission and prohibited new appointees from fund-raising for statewide candidates or leading political committees.
But the headline grabber was the creation of the inspector general, which would report to the legislature’s Joint Committee on Transportation Oversight.
Although the transportation department already had a similar internal position, legislators argued that some outside eyes could help spot problems, recommend solutions and field citizen complaints.
The first inspector general was supposed to take office Jan. 1, 2004, with a term running through June 30, 2005, according to the law. But that start date came and went.
Sen. Jon Dolan, R-Lake St. Louis, a sponsor of the law and co-chairman of the joint transportation committee, recalls there initially was no money in the budget — plus he was deployed in Cuba with the National Guard. Then, he said, lawmakers decided to wait until a November 2004 vote on another transportation revenue package, which passed with nearly 79 percent of the vote.
Rep. Neal St. Onge, R-Ellisville, said the field of inspector general candidates had been narrowed to three when he became co-chairman of the joint committee last January.
Legislative leaders ultimately picked Orndoff, who is chairwoman of the American Society of Civil Engineers’ Committee on Leadership and Management.
But she apparently failed to make a good impression in her legislative job.
Dolan said he recommended that Orndoff not be reappointed. “The person did not fit the work ethic the committee was looking for,” Dolan said.
Senate records show Orndoff was paid $15,909 for her three months as inspector general.
The state budget that took effect in July includes $108,000 for an inspector general, an assistant if needed, and any expenses, Dolan said. St. Onge is leading a search for a new inspector general.
Both Dolan and St. Onge acknowledge that circumstances have changed since the law was passed. Instead of criticizing, the lawmakers are now praising the transportation agency.
“It’s not quite as vital to look into current operations at MoDOT as it would have been two years ago,” St. Onge said. “But (the inspector general) is still a critical position in terms of looking at creative financing, interaction with the public and to try to bring our whole transportation system together.”