Charlie Mitchell Column

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, January 27, 2009


Mitchell: MDOT official chafes at report revealing travel expense

Dear Editor:

I am writing in reference to your article “Sun Herald investigation: Officials travel the world on taxpayers’ dollars” that appeared in today’s paper (Jan. 15).

Each morning as Transportation Commissioner, I have a choice.  I can:

Sign up for our daily email newsletter

Get the latest news sent to your inbox

1. Sit on the porch and have no expenses, or

2. Go out in the field and work for the people that elected me and have expenses.


Wayne Brown

When a newspaper receives a letter like that, it usually means some good journalism has taken place.

This time it was by Michael Newsom of the state’s second-largest paper, the Sun Herald, which serves coastal Mississippi.

Using public records, Newsom documented that the three elected transportation commissioners, including Wayne Brown of the Southern District, and their executive director, Butch Brown (no kin to Wayne), had spent at least $207,000 in four years on travel, much of it international.

The records also kindle an age-old question: Why is it that answers to pressing state matters can be found at Walt Disney World, Cape Cod, Key West, San Francisco and Branson, Mo.? Why are answers never available in Duluth, Minn., or Provo, Utah? And why is lodging at places like L’Enfant Plaza in Washington at rates up to $457 per night required. Days Inns all full?

The Browns were the big spenders — apparently much more in need of education, research and fact-finding than Central District Commissioner Dick Hall or Northern District Commissioner Bill Minor. Butch Brown accounted for $80,000 and Wayne Brown for $69,000 of the total. Hall spent a paltry $12,600.

A biggie for the Browns was a $7,000 swing through Europe — to Brussels, Budapest and Vienna — to study how “rivers and ports are used to move cargo.” Hmmm. Couldn’t learn about that from facilities reports, Webcams, through e-mails or by driving over to the Tenn-Tom or Mississippi?

Now it’s smug to begrudge elected officials their salaries and reasonable expenses. When there are special sessions and such, letters griping about the cost are a feature of every editorial page in the state. Taxpayers can be and often are irrationally stingy.

But the Mississippi Transportation Commission, which could have homecoming meetings for some of its alumni in assorted prisons, is a special case. A few years back it was reported the commission was spending big money remodeling and refurnishing its palatial headquarters suites in Jackson despite emergency needs such as post-Katrina repairs and a report condemning 2,000 state bridges as unsafe. Unfazed, the trio went right ahead. As a group, they project an unassailable, imperial aura — so self-serving that Hall couldn’t take it any more, moved out and uses a construction shack as his office.

Some of the conceit comes as a consequence of the money and power the commission wields. The Mississippi Department of Transportation has 3,400 employees and spends $1.4 billion mostly federal dollars a year. The commission doesn’t answer to the Legislature, the governor or anyone else except voters — the majority of whom likely don’t know it exists. Members are accustomed to being wined and dined by contractors —not taking questions from the public.

Newsom and the Sun Herald changed that — at least for a moment — and it wasn’t easy.

Often when we hear the term “public record,” it’s assumed a citizen, walked in, asked for information and was immediately handed a piece of paper containing all of the relevant information in an easily understandable format.

That rarely happens and it didn’t when the newspaper made its request for four years of travel expenses. In fact, the first 1,700-page batch of copies was incomplete. Attorneys had to get involved before Newsom turned to the state Department of Finance and Administration to break through the stonewall. Butch Brown was especially resentful. “It amazes us that every time you get a little slow news day or something you say let’s dig some (expletive) up on MDOT,” he told the newspaper.

In a perfect world, people in public jobs spending money other than their own wouldn’t be like that. Public employees would freely accept that those providing the money have not just a right but a responsibility to know how it was spent.

That’s not so, of course. Witness the fact reported by the Sun Herald that merely by requiring travelers to write a note explaining how their expenses were directly related to their job responsibilities, the Alabama Highway Department cut travel costs sharply.

In the long term, the solution is to do away — as most states have — with elected road czars and start using the appointment process to create checks and balances.

That won’t be happening in this state anytime soon. We love electing folks and see the appointment process as a threat to our citizenship.

In the interim, good journalists and good journalism are an absolute necessity. Congratulations to the Sun Herald and Michael Newsom.

(Charlie Mitchell is executive editor of The Vicksburg Post. Write to him at Box 821668, Vicksburg, MS 39182, or e-mail