Politics & Government

Transportation creates 12 posts

PIKEVILLE - The state Transportation Cabinet has created new appointed posts in each of Kentucky's 12 highway districts to handle business operations, including hiring of road workers -- a key point of controversy for the administration.

The dozen new deputy executive directors of the highway offices, who will be paid annual salaries of $75,000, now will be the central figures in making personnel decisions for road jobs across the state instead of Frankfort-based Cabinet officials.

Hiring of rank-and-file merit workers in the Transportation Cabinet -- highway crew supervisors or road equipment operators, for instance -- touched off the 15-month-long investigation into personnel practices in Gov. Ernie Fletcher's administration.

Documents revealed that some administration officials were improperly recruiting and hiring Republicans and Fletcher supporters into merit positions, which must be filled based on qualifications. Three charges against the governor himself were eventually dropped through a deal with Attorney General Greg Stumbo.

Transportation Cabinet Secretary Bill Nighbert said the Cabinet already has appointed six deputy executive directors and made offers to three others. The Cabinet is still looking to fill the new posts in the two Western Kentucky districts and District 10, based in Flemingsburg.

Nighbert said the hiring process has been reworked and the deputy executive directors won't be involved in any kind of effort to seek out Fletcher supporters for jobs.

"They're not out recruiting anybody," he said.

Personnel officials in Frankfort will still comb through job applications for posts and recommend finalists for each open position.

The highway offices' deputy executive directors will then work with two others in the district offices to interview the candidates and make the selections.

The new appointees also will take accounting and personnel training, Nighbert said after the presentation of highway money to the city of Pikeville on Friday.

One of the first new deputies hired, Peggy Justice of Pikeville, said the move takes administration pressure off the chief district engineers, who head up each region office.

"I will mostly focus on the business side -- the fiscal and facilities and let the chief engineer do the engineering," said Justice, a former employee of Summit Engineering in Pikeville.

For about two years, Transportation officials had been kicking around a broad reorganization scheme that would allow a political appointee in each of the districts to handle hiring, among other things.

But the creation of the new deputy executive director post is as far as the cabinet is going at this point, Nighbert said.

He also expressed frustration that the news media haven't reported on $70 million in savings the cabinet has made through efficiencies.

Nighbert said the cabinet has cut its work force by more than 800 people through attrition since the Fletcher administration took office in December 2003.

Records kept by the Herald-Leader confirm the work force is smaller. Since March 2005, the cabinet's personnel roster has shrunk from 5,156 to about 4,500.

That comes as the cabinet has the task of doling out nearly $2 billion in road funds.

"We've had a record bid-letting year, which means we've been the busiest we've been in the history of the commonwealth," Nighbert said. "And we've done it with 15 percent fewer people."