USDOT move leaves open spot on influential Oregon Transportation Commission

OTC members left to right: Chair Robert Van Brocklin, Vice Chair Alando Simpson, Julie Brown, Sharon Smith.

There’s an opening on the five-member body that oversees the Oregon Department of Transportation.

Former City of Portland staffer Maurice Henderson starts his new job with the Biden Administration today after officially resigning his seat on the Oregon Transportation Commission on Friday (1/29).

Advertisement

The vacancy will put a spotlight on Oregon Governor Brown, who leads the appointment process for all OTC commissioners. Brown will face intense lobbying from transportation, environmental, and social justice advocacy groups who understand the OTC’s vital role in making sure ODOT’s makes the right moves to curb emissions and build a fair, sustainable, and humane mobility system. Sources say a coalition of groups will be reaching out to Brown’s office to pressure her on the decision and to open up the appointment process to the public.

In the meantime, let’s review the how the commissioner selection process currently goes. To learn more I reached out Assistant Director of Government and External Relations for ODOT, Lindsay Baker.

Here’s what she said:

Per Oregon statute, appointments to the OTC are made by the Governor and confirmed by the Senate.

— Governor Brown submits her executive appointments to the Secretary of the Senate (this happens I believe 21 days before the committee formally considers the list via/during committee meeting)

Advertisement

— Senate Committee on Rules and Executive Appointments considers the list of executive appointments (for first-time appointments (not reappointments)) the candidates are typically asked to appear before the committee (I expect this time will be virtual)

— Senate Committee recommends appointments move forward to a vote of full Senate

— Typically the full Senate votes within a few days of the committee recommendation; this session it’ll depend on when next floor is scheduled since it’s less frequently at the beginning of session than in sessions past.

As we think about who the next OTC commissioner might be, keep in mind that geographic equity matters and at least one member must live east of the Cascade Range (Henderson lived in Bend/central Oregon). And no more than three members can belong to the same political party. (Learn more about each current commissioner on the OTC bio page.)

Given what’s at stake, we’ll be watching this appointment closely. It’s also worth noting that current Chair Robert Van Brocklin’s term is up this year (at the end of June). He could run again, but if he doesn’t we’ll dust off this post and watch that appointment closely too.

Stay tuned.

UPDATE, 2/2: A letter (below) has been sent to Governor Brown from 31 community organizations and leaders (below) calling for a more transparent selection process and a choice that reflects urgency and understanding around key issues like induced demand, climate change, equity, investment in non-driving options, and so on.
020221 - Letter to Governor Brown re OTC Appointment

— Jonathan Maus: (503) 706-8804, @jonathan_maus on Twitter and jonathan@bikeportland.org
— Get our headlines delivered to your inbox.
— Support this independent community media outlet with a one-time contribution or monthly subscription.

Subscribe
Notify of
guest
11 Comments
oldest
newest most voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
David Hampsten
David Hampsten
1 year ago

Looking at the geographic distribution of the remaining members, I’d expect the new appointment to be from Eugene or Salem, or maybe the coast.

Fred
Fred
1 year ago
Reply to  David Hampsten

There must be someone in Eugene or Salem, or on the coast, who commutes to work by bike and can represent that perspective.

Ed
Ed
1 year ago

In theory, the OTC wields quite a bit of power. In reality, the OTC mostly rubber stamps whatever ODOT staff put in front of them. Until that dynamic changes, the appointments rarely matter.

Ed
Ed
1 year ago

My observation is that the OTC structure basically lends itself to being a branch of ODOT. The agenda, presentation, and decisions are all cooked up by ODOT staff prior to the OTC meetings. The OTC hears primarily from ODOT staff. The opportunity for public comments is very limited. Rarely is there a substantive debate at an OTC meeting. Because transportation funding is so convoluted, the OTC relies on the “expertise” of ODOT staff. That isn’t to fault the OTC members. They are volunteers and shouldn’t be expected to know everything. The current structure serves ODOT well. Progressive change would mean taking away power from ODOT staff. Therein lies the rub.

David Hampsten
David Hampsten
1 year ago

I think the complexity of funding at ODOT (and other agencies for that matter) is by design so that the pesky public can’t figure it out and the governor and state legislature (and their lobbyists) can get whatever they want.

I don’t think staff particularly care what projects get funded, as long as certain safety standards (for car drivers) are maintained, that staff get paid, and that funding will keep coming every year.

Fred
Fred
1 year ago
Reply to  David Hampsten

In response to Ed, I would just say that many governing bodies function in exactly the way you describe. But nothing says they HAVE to.

I remember attending a meeting of a governing body here in Portland some years ago, where I observed a board member absolutely LIGHT UP a staffer who had just testified about progress on an issue of interest to the board. Clearly the board member was not happy about the progress on that issue, and – within minutes – word of the board member’s unhappiness was filtering through the entire organization! A few years later, even after the board member has moved on, the organization continues to make progress on a priority this one board member championed.

I’m with JM here: the appointment of a person to the OTC is an important step in ensuring that non-motorhead perspectives are represented in decisions made by the OTC and by ODOT. After all, don’t we have the OTC to thank for the disastrous decision to spend $800M+ to widen I-5 thru the Rose Quarter? ODOT says they are just following orders from the OTC, and those of us who followed every political avenue to reverse that decision were told it was up to the OTC.

David Hampsten
David Hampsten
1 year ago
Reply to  Fred

“I remember attending a meeting of a governing body here in Portland some years ago, where I observed a board member absolutely LIGHT UP a staffer who had just testified about progress on an issue of interest to the board.”

I’ve done this myself to great effectiveness back in 2010 with the PBOT Budget (now Bureau) Advisory Committee when I was representing East Portland. It’s not something one does randomly – it requires some skill to have a convincing temper tantrum in public and to make it count strategically. For example, you need to know your audience very well – it helps if they are both passive and feeling guilty already. Secondly you really really need to look like your going to throw a chair or do some other spontaneous violent act without actually doing so – a bit of acting helps. Thirdly, it needs to be done in front of a group who has actual power – doing it a public open house for example is pointless, as the staff there have next to no power.

My doing an actual temper tantrum and making it look convincing lasted me for years on that committee – people paid attention to what I said afterwards and did their best to not rile me up during meetings. However, I will confess I was coached beforehand – and it helped!

David Hampsten
David Hampsten
1 year ago
Reply to  Ed

After reading their Dec 1st meeting minutes, I’m inclined to agree that they are a rubber-stamp organization with zero authority, and are hand-picked to reflect that reality. On the other hand, most boards, committees, commissions and authorities are equally powerless, be they local, regional, state, or federal, unless they are directly elected by the people, have independent taxing authority, and serve independent from any other government.

If the OTC was an independent elected authority who controlled gas tax rates and how they were spent, you can bet they would be constantly scrutinized.

Granpa
Granpa
1 year ago

OTC and ODOT leadership are in a nice cozy tub washing each other’s backs. Profoundly loud public advocacy or activist legislators are needed to change the dynamic