Monday, August 13, 2007

Et tu, Gunyou?

John Gunyou's op-ed piece in the Strib today:

New motto: Buck passes through here

In the aftermath of the Interstate 35W bridge collapse, a stream of public officials have praised the goodness of Minnesota's response to the tragedy, have vowed to get to the bottom of it and have pledged to immediately rebuild. It's been heartwarming, but a little unsatisfying. I keep waiting for someone to apologize.

Not so much to accept blame, but rather to acknowledge responsibility. It's unfair to think that anyone would cavalierly sacrifice public safety for political gain, but what about a simple apology for not doing everything they reasonably should have to prevent such a tragedy?

It's one thing to try, and fall short; it's quite another to not even make the effort. It's increasingly evident the Pawlenty-Molnau administration ignored the advice of bridge experts to take remedial action. Worse yet, the administration still has no viable long-term plan to improve, much less maintain, our state's critical transportation infrastructure.

After twice vetoing the Legislature's attempts to put such a plan in place, Gov. Tim Pawlenty offered up a scheme to fund our needs at only 10 cents on the dollar -- with 30-year bonds. Worse yet, he wanted to pay off that debt by cutting into already inadequate maintenance resources. That doesn't build any more roads or bridges over the long run; it simply borrows against the future.

So, what about that sincere public apology? To dodge any responsibility for their sins of omission, the folks in charge have perfected the art of the non-apology. Here are a few glaring examples:

• "It came out of the blue." This excuse is more compelling for unpredictable natural disasters, but never when the responsible parties have ignored multiple warnings. The night of the disaster, Pawlenty emphasized that no prior inspections had raised any concerns. [this is King Banaian's black swan] When this claim proved bogus, he quickly shifted to the "but no one ever told me to close the bridge" defense.

• "I did what the experts told me to" is another popular dodge. Except, in this case, the experts did advise state Transportation Commissioner and Lt. Gov. Carol Molnau to weld steel plates onto the supports of her "structurally deficient" bridge, but she ordered them to come up with lower-cost options. Rather than address the underlying structural problems, she chose to put a new deck on the bridge to make things look better. That unfortunate decision was an apt metaphor for the shortsighted philosophy of this administration -- rather than make critical investments in basic infrastructure, just slap on a new coat of paint.

• "It's not my job" was the old standby trotted out by President Bush. He declared that states are responsible for bridge maintenance to divert attention away from multiple reports about our crumbling national infrastructure. In his world, the federal government is apparently responsible only for rebuilding the foreign infrastructures it destroys. [check out Spot's The condition we're in]

• "Let's not play the blame game." The Taxpayers League offered up this evasion, which was quickly parroted by its rapidly dwindling cult of no-taxers. It's the diversion most often used by those with the most egg on their faces. If your professed goal is to starve the government beast (or force the unrealistic reprioritization of inadequate resources), one of the inevitable consequences is deteriorating public infrastructure. [Michael Brodkorb's initial theme]

• • •

Where's Harry Truman when you need him? Today's leaders seem to have a sign that reads, "The buck passes through here." The non-apology has become the refuge of those who'd rather act resolute after the fact, than actually demonstrate forward-thinking leadership.

We can hope the bridge collapse was enough of a proverbial two-by-four between the eyes to get the attention of those responsible for our public infrastructure. It certainly got ours.

John Gunyou is Minnetonka's city manager. He was Minnesota's finance commissioner in the [Arne] Carlson administration.

Spot has decided to discontinue the professional division of the Spotty™ award, or Mr. Gunyou's piece would have earned one.

Carol Molnau ought to fall on her political sword. If she won't fall on it, she should get a little push.

No comments: