Reeling from revelations about cover-ups and cost overruns, the largest public works project in American history has a chance to regain some much-needed trust and credibility with the dismissal of Massachusetts Turnpike Authority Chair James J. Kerasiotes.
Governor A. Paul Cellucci demanded Kerasiotes' resignation after a stinging federal report criticized the Big Dig chief. The Federal Highway Administration accused Kerasiotes of "intentionally withholding knowledge" of budget overruns and breaching the integrity of the federal/state highway development partnership. In addition to recommending that more financial accountability rest at the federal level, the report designated the turnpike authority and the Massachusetts Highway Department as "high-risk" agencies, a slap in the face to a governor who routinely touts his fiscal prudence.
Kerasiotes will be replaced by Andrew S. Natsios, Cellucci's former administration and finance secretary. Natsios is a budget hawk; he has been responsible for developing and implementing the state's spending plans over the past several years. If anyone is prepared to take over as mammoth a project as the Big Dig, it is Natsios.
Natsios' first decisions on the job have been forthright and encouraging. He has swept several top Kerasiotes deputies out of office. In stark contrast to his predecessor, Natsios vowed full disclosure of financial information, saying "[The media] are going to have more information than they're going to want to print."
If Natsios wishes to succeed in the area of public confidence and trust, where Kerasiotes failed, he must follow through on this commitment. While Kerasiotes achieved a superb safety record and received praise for successful traffic abatement efforts, he left a far more damaging legacy: he turned a public project into his own private fiefdom. Through creative accounting and fiscal trickery, he denied accurate information to the taxpayers about a project for which they are paying.
In the last few weeks, Kerasiotes' efforts to save his job were as distasteful as they were futile. He attempted to justify his decision to conceal the true financial figures, and when that didn't work, he tried to shift the blame onto departed officials. Kerasiotes even surreptitiously lobbied the transportation department against a provision that would bar him from participating in any other federal project.
In the end, Kerasiotes committed a cardinal sin of public management: he considered his own interests before those of the public to whom he was responsible. Rather than admit that he could not hold the Big Dig to budget, Kerasiotes chose to hide the overruns in the vain hope that he could find some way to bring the project to the black. Eventually he became desperate in his attempts to hold onto his job and turned to dishonest financial reporting.
Natsios can finish this project successfully by emulating the better aspects of Kerasiotes' record while upholding his commitment, as a public employee, to treat the taxpayers with respect and honesty. To ensure the residents of Massachusetts reap the benefits of this massive project, Natsios must first revitalize the project's reputation in Washington while not digging taxpayers deeper into debt.
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