Emergency mismanagement

MnDOT’s lack of supervision in the Sonia Pitt affair raises doubts about leadership.

When the Interstate 35W bridge collapsed Aug. 1, police departments and rescue workers from all over the metro area rushed to the scene. One person who seems to have done her best to stay away from the disaster, though, was Sonia Pitt, Minnesota Department of Transportation’s director of Homeland Security and Emergency Response. When the collapse occurred, Pitt was in Washington D.C., and rather than heading back to Minnesota to help coordinate the recovery that her title seems to make her explicit responsibility, Pitt went to a conference in Boston and then headed back to Washington, not returning to Minnesota until 10 days after the collapse.

Pitt was fired by MnDOT Nov. 9 after an internal investigation, but department officials, including Commissioner Carol Molnau ,tried to downplay how Pitt’s absence might have hindered recovery efforts. Last week, an investigation by the state’s independent legislative auditor, Jim Nobles, found that not only was Pitt responsible for running recovery operations, but that she had misused $26,000 in state money for a number of years.

Lax oversight from supervisors, according to the report, was the main reason why this occurred, and we believe that a full investigation into MnDOT’s finances is not only warranted but absolutely necessary to restore public confidence in the department’s operations. More troubling to us, though, is the lack of leadership that could allow someone to abuse their position as much as it appears Pitt did. Staffers working in the emergency management office called Pitt’s attitude “aggressive” and “belligerent” and no one, from Carol Molnau on down, bothered to ask her to return from Washington in the 10 days after the collapse. If the biggest transportation-related disaster in state history isn’t enough for the director of emergency management to be called in, what is? Those recovery workers, including MnDOT employees who put in as long as 48-hour shifts, deserve to know how this unaccountability could persist, and taxpayers deserve some answers as to how the stewards of their government could be so irresponsible.