Lieutenant Gov. Carol Molnau has spent four months avoiding unpleasant news stories (she says she ignores them) about the Minnesota Department of Transportation, which she ran without close scrutiny of her leadership until Aug. 1.
That was the day -- four months ago -- when the most-inspected bridge in the state collapsed, killing 13 people. And when the Pawlenty-Molnau administration started scrambling for cover.
Two weeks after the fall of the Interstate 35W bridge, Molnau stopped answering most questions about her department and her decisions. She has declined repeated interview requests from the Star Tribune newsroom since mid-August. To help get her back in the habit of answering questions, I have included a dozen pertinent queries at the end of this column.
This is sadly necessary because, in carefully choreographed interviews, Molnau has been waging a public relations campaign not on behalf of enlightening the taxpayers, but on behalf of saving her own hide.
At least one poll shows Minnesotans want Molnau to resign as transportation commissioner. But Molnau remains in the job Gov. Tim Pawlenty assigned to her, serving the governor the way a back-yard hay bale helps keep Little Jimmy's arrows from hitting the side of the house.
Taking the hit for Pawlenty is politics. But when she took the helm of MnDOT, Molnau was no longer merely a politician. She was a public servant. And she is doing the public no good by staying in her job for political reasons.
Molnau has ducked journalists and legislators who want to ask in-depth questions about the maintenance debates that took place before the bridge fell, or the spin-control efforts that followed (MnDOT decided within hours of the collapse to hire an outside consulting firm -- for $2 million, the same price as the plan to strengthen the bridge that had earlier been rejected).
Most of these woe-is-me exchanges have boiled down to questions of the "How are you holding up" variety. (Short answer: Better than the bridges). Molnau cried on one newscast as she described visiting the bridge and shed tears on another station when asked if the collapse had changed her life.
"A lot of people's lives have changed," she told one station. "A lot of the employees here at MnDOT ... and a lot of the families who were affected. So all of our lives have changed a bit ... and mine's no different."
Thirteen people are dead, dozens are injured for life. And some are being criticized for how they do their job. See?
We're all affected.
Molnau is entitled to have feelings. But the taxpayers are entitled to straight answers from the politician running the Department of Transportation when the bridge fell.
Here are a dozen Molnau could begin with:
1. Why do you need an assistant (Bob McFarlin) to answer basic questions about MnDOT practices and decisions?
2. What role has the governor played in managing MnDOT and the bridge crisis?
3. MnDOT paid a consultant to figure out how to fix the 35W bridge, then ignored the recommendations. Why?
4. What changes, if any, have you made in inspection and repair procedures since Aug. 1?
5. Why did you hire a private consultant to study the collapse (in addition to the National Transportation Safety Board)? Who besides you and the governor will see the findings before release?
6. Do you truly believe there is nothing you could have done to prevent the collapse and the loss of lives?
7. You say MnDOT decisions aren't solely "engineer-based." Not even when public safety is at stake? Please justify.
8. The governor says money was not an issue in the collapse, but you say MnDOT "looks at costs to maximize resources." Reconcile, please. How did "looking at costs" limit work on the 35W bridge?
9. Many defects on the 35W bridge went un-fixed for years. Why are bridges repeatedly re-inspected instead of repairs being made as problems are discovered?
10. Sonia Morphew Pitt, the fired MnDOT manager, led emergency preparedness drills, and yet you say her presence wasn't required after the collapse. Why not? What was your role in supervising her? When did you first receive complaints about her travels? If it was before the collapse, why was she still in her job?
11. Why did you pick a design for a new Wakota Bridge (years behind schedule and far over budget) that fails half of the time it is used? Finally:
12. Is it not best for Minnesota, and the employees and reputation of MnDOT, for you to resign immediately?
Nick Coleman • firstname.lastname@example.org