Monday, December 31, 2007

From the Archives V: Inside MnDOT January 21, 2003

Star Tribune (Minneapolis, MN) January 21, 2003, Tuesday, Metro Edition

INSIDE MnDOT; Motivation can be costly at MnDOT; Spending on conferences, travel and entertainment adds up

Dan Browning; Pat Doyle; Staff Writers

The committees that plan the Minnesota Department of Transportation's annual two-day conferences in Bloomington say they handpick keynote speakers to get "experts in topics relevant" to the agency.

But the featured speakers in recent years weren't hired for their knowledge of asphalt or their command of cost-efficient design.

Last year, for instance, the 1,200 or so who attended the conference at the Radisson South Hotel were treated to an hourlong speech titled "The Rise, Fall and Rise of Harley-Davidson." The speaker, a marketing consultant, was paid $10,750.

A speech the next day was titled "Build a Bridge . . ." But it had nothing to do with concrete and steel. Rather, taxpayers spent $14,045 for engineers to spend an hour with a motivational speaker who writes about communication between the sexes.

Speakers at the past five MnDOT conferences have talked about taking risks, adjusting to change, the use of humor at work and similar topics. Their fees, which included expenses, averaged $8,800.

Gov. Tim Pawlenty criticized the expenditures when he learned about them from a reporter. "When you see contracts for speakers on, you know, the rise and fall of Harley-Davidson or whatever some of these other topics are . . . that doesn't really reflect a sense of priorities or focus," he said.

In a prepared statement, MnDOT defended the selection of speakers. It said the conferences include sessions related both to transportation and organizational development.

"The Commissioner's Office sets the criteria," the agency said. "The speaker from Harley Davidson Corporation addressed how his company resurrected itself by turning its attention to the customer," it said, adding that he also has spoken to other states' transportation departments.

The agency said its conferences draw both employees and transportation partners. It rents booths to vendors and charges a fee for attendance, but most of those attending are employees, and the agency pays their fees.

MnDOT has increased its spending on the event by about 61 percent, from $136,173 in 1999 to $219,300 last year, according to records obtained by the Star Tribune under the Minnesota Data Practices Act.

During the past four conventions, MnDOT spent a total of $664,231 more than it recovered from vendors' fees and other income, records show. Keynote speaker contracts for the four years totaled $114,430.

Some examples from the 2001 conference:
- $11,650 for a former ski champion's motivational speech.
- $12,950 for a team-building consultant who talked about ways managers can use fun to revitalize workers.
- $5,000 for a speech on "Intelligent Risk Taking."

MnDOT has canceled its 2003 conference, citing budget constraints.

Despite a tight budget, 34 go to Alaska conference

In addition to its own conferences, MnDOT participates in the annual conference of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO).

The 2002 conference was held in Alaska in October. The agency initially sought permission from the Department of Employee Relations to send 25 people, noting that Minnesota would be host of the conference this year.

Bill Eisele, a division manager in the Employee Relations Department, cautioned MnDOT about sending so many. "I realize the necessity of your [conference] committee chairs going since you will be hosting the conference next year. However, have you considered the negative press if this ever got out?" he wrote in a July e-mail to Bruce Biser, assistant director of management operations.

Citing the limitations of Gov. Jesse Ventura's administration on travel to save costs, Eisele asked Biser whether MnDOT could say that it actually would have sent more if money wasn't so tight.
Biser responded that he had reduced the number of employees who would go in preparation for the Minnesota convention to 20. But he added that MnDOT was planning to send 20 others for general purposes.

Eisele said MnDOT's travel request was the largest that he had encountered. MnDOT officials eventually persuaded the Employee Relations Department to authorize travel for as many as three dozen employees, he said.

MnDOT sent 34 people at a cost of about $100,000, records show.

Doug Weiszhaar, who recently resigned as acting commissioner of MnDOT, defended the size of the MnDOT delegation in a written response to the Star Tribune. He said it was necessary to gather information to ensure a successful conference here this year. He said the event would bring more than $2 million to Minnesota's economy.

However, Pawlenty reacted strongly when told about the trip in a recent interview. "That's just, that's just outrageous," he said.

The size of the Alaska delegation and the expenditures on speakers for MnDOT's own annual conference indicate problems in the department's leadership that need correcting, he said.

Comedians among those hired to speak to staff

MnDOT also hires local speakers throughout the year for much smaller fees. Each year, it gets general approval from the state Department of Administration for these small, routine contracts. Records show that MnDOT budgeted $510,000 for a category labeled "trainers and speakers" over the past three years.

"This category includes short, informal training sessions such as welding and concrete techniques, stress management and supervisory skills," MnDOT told Administration. "Subjects may range from new developments in specialized engineering areas to employee safety to motivational speakers at district annual meetings."

But MnDOT also used those contracts to hire comedians and other entertainers.

For instance, MnDOT paid $200 to Jerome Mayne for a 20-minute comedy routine during an employee meeting in December 2001.

"It was so dry. I mean, light rail, budget and all this," Mayne said about the meeting. "And then here's Jerome coming in, in the middle of the morning, trying to make 'em laugh. It was one of the hardest gigs I've ever done."

Although his contract says he was hired as a motivational speaker, Mayne said his appearance was strictly a stand-up gig. "I think they did that for billing," he said.

MnDOT engineer Michael Martilla signed the contract. At first, he said Mayne had indeed been hired as a motivational speaker. But when told what Mayne had said, Martilla responded: "Well, motivation can be, come in many different forms. And comedy certainly can be motivating also."

MnDOT also paid $1,850 to two popular comedians from Glenwood, Minn., who bill themselves as Tina & Lena. Their contract shows them as the "keynote speakers" for an annual employee outing in Fergus Falls. Annette Hustad (Lena) said the pair was asked to talk about "humor and harmony in the workplace."

The 'Tinklenberg Zone': A staff-produced parody video
On occasion, MnDOT does its own entertaining.

Shortly after Elwyn Tinklenberg, then transportation commissioner, excoriated state House Republicans last year for killing his funding wish list, his staff produced a tongue-in-cheek video promoting their boss. The 9 1/2-minute tape, titled "Tinklenberg Zone," cost at least $2,900 in employee time and expenses. A MnDOT employee played the role of Tinklenberg.

Gary Pettis, a MnDOT communications manager, explained the production this way in a letter to a Star Tribune reporter:

"The main idea behind the video came from the occurrences surrounding Mn/DOT Commissioner Elwyn Tinklenberg, Chief of Staff Margo LaBau, and Federal Affairs Liaison Dan Krom's return trip from Washington D.C. to Minnesota right after September 11th. The group could not return to the Twin Cities via the airlines, as airports and air traffic nationwide were shut down.

"Their only remedy was to find a rental car and drive it back to Minnesota. You can imagine what a somber drive that was. Therefore, the video's objective was to show that it is all right to laugh and to have fun. My department took the concept of the 'many faces of the commissioner' and produced a humorous video."

It was played at a June 26 manager's meeting, nine months after the terrorism attacks.

Lt. Gov. Carol Molnau, whom Pawlenty has named transportation commissioner, said taxpayers shouldn't have to pay for frivolities or services that don't relate to transportation. "I agree with people having a good time," she said. "I just don't know that state tax dollars . . . should pay for it.

"If it's not a benefit to the taxpayers of the state as it relates to MnDOT," Molnau said, "then we probably ought not be doing it."

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