Miss. transportation chief wins committee support

Published 1:15 pm Friday, May 8, 2009

A top lawmaker said he expects the Senate to reconfirm Butch Brown as executive director of the Mississippi Department of Transportation, despite opponents’ belief that Brown has an abrasive management style.

The Senate Highways and Transportation Committee voted 13-4 Wednesday to recommend that Brown stay in the top administrative position in an agency with 3,300 employees and a combined federal and state budget of $1.1 billion. He is paid $144,354 a year.

The committee chairman, Republican Tom King of Petal, said a background investigation by a legislative watchdog group showed “no illegal activity at all” by Brown. Because of that, King said there was no reason not to support Brown.

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The full Senate is scheduled vote on Brown’s reconfirmation Thursday.

“I have not twisted any arms or asked anybody to vote. That will be a decision of each member,” King said. “What I’m hearing, there are enough votes out there that we’ll confirm him.”

After the committee vote Wednesday, Brown shook hands and thanked senators who supported him. On Tuesday, several of the committee members asked Brown tough questions about his travel expenses, his management style and his support of parole for a convicted murderer.

“It’s unfortunate that there had been this kind of controversy, I guess you’d say, over the reconfirmation,” Brown told reporters Wednesday. “We think we’ve done a great job. We know that the department is solidly working together now, at least more than it ever has in the past. We want to be able to continue that.”

Brown, a former mayor of Natchez, was first nominated as MDOT director in 2001 and confirmed in 2002. He was fired by one group of elected transportation commissioners in November 2004, then rehired six weeks later when one of the three commissioners retired and a new one took office. Brown was confirmed a second time in 2005.

State law says the MDOT director is nominated by a majority of the three elected transportation commissioners, and the director must be confirmed by the Senate every four years.

Brown has publicly clashed the past several years with one of the three commissioners, Dick Hall. But he has been supported by the other two, Bill Minor and Wayne Brown — no relation.

In 2004, Butch Brown fired a transportation department employee who worked for Hall because Brown thought she was insubordinate. An appeals board reinstated the worker, and the state Supreme Court upheld her reinstatement with back pay.

The department’s chief engineer said last year Butch Brown forced him out of his job. The engineer worked for the department 26 years and was interim executive director in 2003 when Butch Brown was temporarily removed from the job.

Wayne Brown acknowledged Wednesday that some people find it difficult to work with Butch Brown.

“I’d like to see him in charm school now and then,” Wayne Brown said. “But he’s done a good job.”

One of the senators who voted against Butch Brown’s reconfirmation was Republican Lee Yancey of Brandon, the committee’s vice chairman. On Tuesday, Yancey jokingly compared Butch Brown to the Peanuts cartoon character Pigpen, who’s constantly surrounded by a cloud of dirt.

“It just seems like stuff is stirred up where ever you go,” Yancey said.

The nomination is Senate Nomination 76.