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NWA editorial: A rebuilding program

Can Edwards save the county Road Department? by NWA Democrat-Gazette | May 23, 2015 at 1:00 a.m.

The foundation upon which Marilyn Edwards built her administration of Washington County government looks a little less certain after she lost one of its primary underpinnings this week.

Dan Short, Edwards' chief of staff since she took office a little more than six years ago, resigned. He did so in the midst of serious questions from the Quorum Court and the public about the quality of construction on bridges and the management of the Washington County Road Department.

What’s the point?

With her chief of staff’s resignation, County Judge Marilyn Edwards faces the challenge of rebuilding trust in the Washington County Road Department that’s been damaged by an organizational failure long in the making.

Short was frank in his resignation letter. He told Edwards "I have in the last few months come to realize that I am failing you and no longer have the ability to provide the assistance you require as county judge from a chief of staff." He also noted he's 68 years old and, for a variety of personal concerns, had decided to leave the work force.

"I regret that this decision comes during a time of such great turmoil in our county government, but I believe you will prevail," Short wrote.

Edwards, in a statement issued at the time she revealed Short's resignation, said she would have liked to have refused his resignation. She called his decision a "tremendous loss for Washington County."

We have no reason to dispute her assessment overall, but the recent revelations surrounding the quality of bridge work by the county Road Department, which the county judge's office manages, demanded some kind of shakeup in the way things have been getting done. Because if the evidence shows anything, it's that critical matters weren't getting done.

A quick review: A lawsuit by a Road Department employee led to the public release of a video showing shoddy work at the Stonewall Bridge just west of Prairie Grove. Allegations also involved the Harvey Dowell Bridge, which the county Road Department completed in late 2013. Edwards had spent months defending the work of her department, but once the video showing loose rebar in finished concrete surfaced, Edwards put a 3-ton weight limit on the Harvey Dowell Bridge and ordered the affected work on the Stonewall Bridge demolished.

The revelations led to calls for investigations. First to the prosecuting attorney, then to the attorney general. Then it was the Arkansas Highway and Transportation Department. Nobody felt it was in their interest or within their purview to resolve what had gone so horribly wrong within the Washington County Road Department.

Finally, the Quorum Court appointed a three-member panel to conduct interviews of county employees and other research on the bridge fiasco. They reported finding employees who wanted to do good work, but a culture in which it was OK, if not expected, to disregard engineering plans. They found employees and supervisors lacked the knowledge or training to build safe bridges. The culture of the department also discouraged questions or any challenge to a deviation from engineering plans.

"This was an organizational failure," Justice of the Peace Eva Madison, who served on the review panel, said.

As a further example of that evaluation, last week the Arkansas Division of Legislative Audit declined to look into the county's spending on bridges. Why? Because Washington County lacks enough documentation to prove or disprove much of anything.

Despite the fact the two bridges involved are $400,000-plus projects, the county does not track spending for individual project. The county buys materials for the Road Department, but does not track which materials are used within each project. That makes it impossible to evaluate whether the money allocated to a project is properly spent, or even if it's spent at all for that project.

Just as with the actual construction, the Road Department was simply ball parking its allocation of resources to each project, but not actively managing it.

Nobody has suggested any wrongdoing such as theft or misuse of county property. But nobody can prove, either, what materials were used in the bridge projects and how much of the budgeted county money actually was spent completing any project.

That analysis speaks volumes to the depth of the problems within Washington County's Road Department. It reflects an almost complete breakdown of the department's management and a lackadaisical regard for the management of public funding.

The debacle has rightly put Edwards' performance as county judge under the microscope. In his resignation letter, Short said he hoped his decision to step down will, in some way, help relieve the pressure on Edwards as county judge. Maybe it will. Maybe it won't. What will relieve it is a capacity to manage a Road Department that is an organizational mess.

Without a doubt, county residents deserve better than what's they've gotten.

Maybe Short's departure is analogous to the demolition of the shoddy construction at the Stonewall Bridge. Edwards and County Attorney Steve Zega have said the portion of the bridge work that wasn't built as planned needed to go so that the county could build better for the future. Perhaps like the poorly built bridge supports, Short had to go before improvements could begin.

But the needed solution has more to do with leadership and management of a county department than it does with one bridge. With Short gone, the question now becomes what Edwards is going to do to rebuild the trust county residents need to have in a Road Department they pay for.

Commentary on 05/23/2015

Print Headline: A rebuilding program

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