WSDOT chief removed after three years

By Steve Guntli

The state Senate removed the Governor’s appointment for the head of the state’s transportation department.

On February 5, Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) secretary Lynn Peterson was effectively fired after lawmakers vetoed Governor Jay Inslee’s appointment. The vote to block Peterson’s appointment passed 25–21, with 24 Republicans and one Democrat voting to fire her. Some Democrats are criticizing the move as a political ploy to damage Inslee’s credibility in an election year.

“Today’s vote by Senate Republicans is a blatant misuse of the confirmation process for political purposes,” said Jaime Smith, Inslee’s spokeswoman, in a press release. “Republicans’ actions today do nothing to engender confidence about their ability to focus on the important priorities facing legislators this session.”

Inslee appointed Peterson to the position in 2012, shortly after he took office. This marks the first time the senate has voted to remove a gubernatorial appointee since 1998, when the senate voted to oust Jolene Unsoeld from the Department of Fish and Wildlife Commission.

Republicans attacked Peterson for the I-405 toll road, which detractors say has failed to alleviate traffic problems, and persistent problems with the ferry system. The Highway 99 tunnel project in Seattle was also a major point of contention. The tunnel has cost more than $200 million in state funds so far, due to a two-year delay.

On the other side of the aisle, Democrats praised Peterson for her quick and effective response to two major disasters, the Oso landslide of 2014 and the Skagit River bridge collapse of 2013.

Debates grew heated, with Democrats like Marilyn Chase (D-Shoreline) likening the firing to a public execution. Senate majority leader Mark Schoesler (R-Ritzville) accused Peterson of racism for her poor record of hiring minority-owned businesses for state contracting jobs. The accusation stems from a letter the Civil Rights Coalition (CRC) sent to the speaker of the house, expressing concerns over the practice.

Whatcom County senator Doug Erickson (R-Ferndale), who voted to remove Peterson, immediately criticized Schoesler’s accusation. Erickson said the senate has been working with the CRC to allay their concerns, and any notion that Peterson is racist is “absurd.” Schoesler later apologized for the comment.

On February 5, Erickson released a statement defending his vote to remove Petersen.

“Those who believe DOT is moving in the right direction voted to confirm Secretary Peterson,” he said. “But the rest of us believe the culture of the agency has gotten worse and the state can do better, and it is time we had new leadership at the Department of Transportation.”

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