Who let the horse out of the barn? That’s what Andrew Perkins Jr. of Greensboro, a member of the state Board of Transportation, wanted to know.
At a board meeting this week Perkins said he was satisified with how the state Department of Transportation responded to a critical audit and review by the Federal Transit Administration.
But he didn’t like seeing a newspaper story published before DOT had a chance to put the best face on its problems with the feds. He chided DOT for the bad press.
A DOT administrator explained that he had felt an obligation to answer questions from a News & Observer reporter. And a DOT lawyer politely schooled Perkins on the workings of North Carolina’s open government laws.
The FTA approved $25 million in grants for rural public transportation in September, but it said North Carolina would not be able to touch a penny until state DOT officials filed a long overdue report explaining how they’ll make sure the money is spent properly.
The FTA had told states in November 2007 to submit the reports, and only North Carolina was penalized for being tardy a year later.
“How did we get all that into the news media before you even got an opportunity to correct it?” Perkins asked Roberto Canales, DOT deputy secretary for transit, at a board committee meeting Wednesday.
“I don’t think anybody’s questioning what you’re doing. I think we’ve got a bigger systemic problem here. ... Everybody knows the horse is out of the barn. We could not qualify for $25 million for whatever reason because we were not ready. We didn’t have a simple report done. That’s the horse out of the barn.
“So the systemic issue is how do you control it before you let this barn door open?”
Board member Marion Cowell Jr. of Charlotte chimed in: “And who put it in the press?”
Board members and legislators asked Canales to brief them about the FTA critique after they learned about it in a Nov. 28 N&O story.
Meanwhile, DOT submitted a new report to the feds late last week and asked FTA to approve it before Wednesday’s briefings. FTA signaled its approval in e-mail time-stamped at 6:44 p.m. Tuesday night. The money was unfrozen, so local transit and social services agencies will not be stuck with the bills for their federal programs.
Canales said he had answered a reporter’s questions about a draft version of FTA’s audit report.
“In an attempt to present as much informaton, to be open as the department has been saying it’s going to be, we presented as much as we had,” Canales said.
Perkins said that reporters’ inquries should be referred to a DOT spokesman, and that the messy details of DOT exchanges with the FTA should not be made public.
“There ought to be a way in which we can deal, when they come in with an FTA review or any federal review. And that stays within the department in terms of coordination between the federal agency and the department.
“And there is only one spokesman for that. It should only come out of the public relations area, and that be a de-sanitized version. Do not let yourself be manipulated to come up with something that’s inflammatory,” Perkins told Canales.
“I hear what you’re saying,” Canales said a minute later. “I’ll take the blame for trying to be up front and trying to present information.”
Lori Kroll, DOT counsel for environmental and transportation issues, stood up in the back of the meeting room to defend Canales and explain the state’s open government laws to Perkins.
“Unfortunately under the North Carolina public information laws, we are not allowed to withhold these draft reports,” Kroll said. “So as soon as the media had that draft report and came to us and said ‘Do you have this,’ we are required by our laws to release it. Even if it is a draft.”
Perkins and Cowell told Canales to put out a press release quickly, announcing that the FTA had approved the plan and was no longer withholding North Carolina’s $25 million.
“We are now out from under that $25 million bar, is that correct?” Cowell said. “think we need to put that out there, and say nothing more than that. Or the least more than that you could possibly say.”