The Minnesota Department of Transportation's first ombudsman says managers "don't quite know what to make of me yet."
With its turbulent history and troubled relationships, the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) may have been the state agency most in need of a social worker. Now it has one in its top ranks.
As the department's first ombudsman, Deb Ledvina has dealt with basements damaged by construction, businesses stranded by detours, billing errors with tolling transponders and other complaints. So far, she says, the public seems to understand her mission and is willing to trust her, but the biggest challenge may be internal: Many MnDOT managers "don't quite know what to make of me yet."
"Her role is to serve as the conscience of the department," said her boss, Tom Sorel, who became transportation commissioner slightly more than a year ago and created the ombudsman's post late last summer. There's no other position like Ledvina's in the country, Sorel said, and other states are "intrigued" to see how things go.
The ombudsman's office is part of Sorel's broader goal of shoring up trust in MnDOT after the collapse of the Interstate 35W Bridge, the much-delayed rebuilding of the Wakota Bridge and other problems.
But in Ledvina's first nine months on the job, homeowners and small businesses, not construction companies, have gotten the bulk of her attention. She picks up complaints after the usual MnDOT processes have failed to produce a resolution -- sometimes after years of back and forth.
She cheerfully admits that she's not a patient person. "I'm always believing that if it's the right thing to do, you should just do it," she said.
One case she inherited involved a small commercial building in Albert Lea, where it turned out that a tall, illuminated sign advertising a hair salon and a travel agency was illegally located on a MnDOT right-of-way. The sign had been in place for nearly four decades.
The building's owner, 81-year-old Lorraine Quinlivan, was shocked when she was suddenly told to remove the sign at her own expense, said her daughter Ellen Kehr, who added that her mother had no idea that she'd been mowing MnDOT's grass for years.
The right-of-way laws are clear, but MnDOT also needs to consider "the people's lives that we are affecting," said Ledvina. "Let's figure out a way where her needs can be met and our needs can be met."
Now MnDOT will take care of removing the sign this summer. Kehr is thrilled.
"She's there to represent the citizen," Kehr said. "I really think that it would be great if more departments in the state had people like Deb."
Ledvina reports directly to Sorel. She was told not to be a "yes" person but "to be honest about how things are working."
To show him one case in which things weren't working, she took her new boss out to meet Alex and Barbara Perry, whose St. Paul Park home had suffered all kinds of damage during reconstruction along Hwy. 61, from a shifting roof to "sheetrock walls that actually moved," Ledvina said.
"I went and sat with these folks at their kitchen table and toured their house and listened to them," Sorel said.
The Perrys had been fighting MnDOT for a while -- they were featured in a TV news report in 2006. They eventually secured $50,000 from their insurance company, Ledvina said, and now MnDOT will pay them $82,000.
Ledvina, 48, says she's long been interested in the pursuit of justice. In addition to degrees in social work, public affairs and law, her résumé includes the Farmers' Legal Action Group and the Minnesota Civil Liberties Union. "I was real passionate about kind of protecting the little guy, frankly," she said. She's been at MnDOT for 16 years, most recently in risk management.
Ultimately, her goal is to reduce the ombudsman's business to a trickle by improving MnDOT's practices on the front end. For example, a better preconstruction evaluation of the Perrys' house, plus more communication with homeowners about what to expect -- and telling them that they should contact MnDOT as soon as problems arise -- could save everyone money in the long run, and keep the department out of the headlines and out of court.
From hydrologists in Willmar to construction managers in Duluth, Ledvina is spreading her message around MnDOT and trying to get beyond the initial reactions of some co-workers, who, understandably, aren't always thrilled when a case ends up in her office.
"It's exciting because transformation is happening," she said. "I'm very impatient, though, so it's not happening fast enough."
Jim Foti • 612-673-4491