Friday, February 23, 2007

The firing line: Which Rendell aides will lose their jobs over the I-78 fiasco?

It wasn't quite the Watergate hearings, but the Pennsylvania Senate's inquest into the Rendell Administration's response to the Interstate 78 fiasco made for compelling television.

Courtesy of gavel to gavel coverage by the Pennsylvania Cable Network, you could almost see the beads of sweat rolling down the foreheads of top Rendell officials as they fell on their swords.

I predict at least two of the four administration honchos who testified before the Senate Thursday and the House Friday will be out of a job within the next few months. Maybe a third official will lose his job if the bad publicity continues to hound Rendell much longer.

Transportation Secretary Allen D. Biehler should start cleaning out his desk now. He's the obvious scapegoat.

PennDOT bungled the initial job of clearing the highway of snow and ice and was directly responsible for stranding hundreds of truckers and motorists on a desolate stretch of highway for nearly a day. Also expect to see the managers of the two PennDOT engineering districts directly responsible for clearing the problem stretch of I-78 on the unemployment line.

The other person who should be updating his resume is James R. Joseph, the head of the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency.

Joseph came across as the worst of the four panelists who faced the Senate committee Thursday. At times aloof, often tongue-tied and barely audible throughout the three-hour hearing, Joseph looked like the proverbial deer caught in the headlines.

In contrast, Col. Jeffrey Miller of the Pennsylvania State Police, came across as confident, even a bit arrogant. Miller could also get the axe, but Rendell has had a checkered history with the State Police and he may not want to create more problems by firing Miller. (Maybe a demotion and assignment to the Hamburg barracks to patrol I-78 might be in order.)

While PennDOT clearly deserves the lion's hare of the blame for the initial failure to deal with the storm and Joseph is out of his league as the state's top emergency manager, Col. Miller appears to have done the best he could with the resources he had. And therein lies the problem.

One thing is evident from the hearings is that the State Police are under-staffed and ill-equipped to deal with a weather-related emergency. Miller said he had 5 troopers working the day shift at the Hamburg barracks when the storm hit. The Hamburg barracks is responsible for patrolling a long stretch of I-78 through the entire length of Berks County. The barracks only has 1 four-wheel drive vehicle at its disposal. A second four-wheel drive vehicle was sent to the I-78 area by the Reading barracks.

Ed Rendell has a lot of explaining to do about the lack of resources for the State Police. This is a governor notorious for diverting needed resources (money and equipment) from vital state agencies to his pet projects (usually in Philadelphia.)

Col. Miller did not give satisfactory answers to reports that his troopers hung up the phones when local police and Berks County 911 officials kept calling with reports of stranded motorists. The State Police have a reputation for arrogance and so does Miller.

The only agency official who came out looking good was Maj. Gen. Jessica Wright, the Pennsylvania Adjutant General. The Pennsylvania National Guard responded well to the emergency. The only criticism of the Guard involved some Guardsmen asking stranded motorists to leave their vehicles to seek shelter. PennDOT then came along and towed the abandoned vehicles and charged the motorists $150 each.

While some of the Senators threw softball questions at the panelists or spent their allotted time making speeches, three Senators stood out during Thursday's hearing: Andrew Dinniman, Mike O'Pake and John Rafferty.

Rafferty had one of the best quips of the day when he asked Joseph if he bothered to look outside to see the weather conditions. "Are there windows in your emergency center?" Rafferty asked Joseph. It appears everyone in the state knew about the storm's intensity by watching TV or listening to the radio ... except PennDOT and emergency officials, Rafferty noted.

Rafferty also wanted a clear answer on the breakdown in the chain of command and why the governor wasn't informed of the disaster until 8 p.m. on Feb. 14. The storm began at midday on Feb. 13.

A lawyer by profession, Rafferty was tenacious and wouldn't let the bureaucrats off the hook until he got a better understanding of who makes the final decision on when an emergency is declared in Pennsylvania.

"What did Ed Rendell know and when did he know it?" is essentially what Rafferty was asking. The panelists danced around the question.

Sen. Mike O'Pake, a Berks Democrat and longtime Rendell sycophant, actually came across incredulous at the administration's failure to deal with the storm. He called it "mingboggling" and criticized the response to the crisis by committee.

"You can't respond to a crisis with a committee system," O'Pake said.

Dinniman, a Chester County Democrat, kept hammering away about the towing fees until Biehler promised that the state would "absorb" the cost.

That's the least PennDOT (with an annual budget of $6.3 billion) can do for the stranded motorists. Maybe Biehler should promise free snow removal for a year to everyone stranded on the state's highways. Oh, wait. That's how we got into this mess in the first place. OK, he can send a crew out this summer to pave their driveways — if he still has a job with the state.

The four officials who run these vital state agencies are not newcomers to the job. Biehler and Miller have been on the job since Rendell took office in 2003. Wright has commanded the Pennsylvania National Guard since February 2004. Joseph took over as PEMA director in September 2005.

At least two of them, maybe three, made their boss look really bad. Not just in Pennsylvania, but across the country. That's why they won't be around much longer.

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