A red light, green light 1-2-3 leadership shakeup at Georgia DOT

As Gov. Nathan Deal stood at the Capitol last week before hundreds of Georgia’s leaders to talk about finding more money for transportation, state Transportation Commissioner Keith Golden watched from the balcony with a mixture of satisfaction and foreboding. Golden had a secret: He was about to quit.

The Georgia Department of Transportation is accustomed to shakeups at the top, but few expected mild-mannered Golden to be at the center of one, especially at the start of a legislative session in which transportation will be the No. 1 issue. Over the past week, however, GDOT has unexpectedly lost its commissioner and its new director of planning — they made him commissioner when Golden resigned — and a board member quit. That much commotion in the upper reaches of a powerful state agency is bound to crank up the rumor mill.

But Golden retains the highest esteem of the board, and the tumult is simply a chain reaction from his desire to retire in the middle of a complicated and high-stakes legislative session, people connected with the events said in exclusive interviews with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Far from being suspicious, they said, the sudden moves result from the officials’ deep concern that the GDOT train keep running during what may be the most important lawmaking session for transportation in a generation.

After watching the pomp of the governor’s State of the State address on Jan. 14, Golden returned to his Midtown offices, where GDOT board members were beginning to assemble for their regular monthly meeting. Sitting alone in a small conference room with the chairman and vice chairwoman, he told them he would hand in his retirement letter the following day.

“We knew he wanted to retire and a time would come,” said GDOT board chairman Don Grantham. He just didn’t know it was that day.

“Shock,” said Golden of people’s reactions last week.

Golden may be the first GDOT commissioner in a decade who can say that his board would take him back if it could. His three predecessors resigned under pressure, retired amid pointed discontent, or were outright fired. But he is also the first in a decade to retire and leave the department so quickly. No weeks-long lame duck season with a tearful (as much as engineers tear up) farewell at his final board meeting.

Grantham had asked Golden to hold off on retiring until a legislative study committee finished its work last year. The Legislature is expected to take up proposals that could raise transportation funding by $1 billion or more, an undertaking unprecedented for decades. Transportation officials are desperate not to rock that boat.

But the study committee went long, postponing its report until the end of the year. Even so, Golden said, he wasn’t 100 percent sure he wanted to retire. “Until you make up your mind it doesn’t make sense to go talk about it,” he said.

Then came the big events of the session opener, the governor’s inauguration and major addresses. Golden said he didn’t want his announcement to distract people from any of that.

So why not wait a few more months? A big reason is Golden’s golden parachute.

Like other transportation commissioners, upon retirement Golden may go into business, consulting on transportation projects. He said he didn’t want to stand before the Legislature this session asking for new funding, and then retire to a consultancy in which he profited from the new money.

“I didn’t want anything to appear I was self-serving,” Golden said.

So now the GDOT board had a very important vacancy to fill at a very sensitive time.

To make matters worse, the board had just lost one of its most likely candidates. Russell McMurry, chief engineer, dealt with a range of other top transportation officials on GDOT’s biggest projects on a daily basis. But the governor was taking McMurry into his fold: Deal was in the process of elevating McMurry to director of planning, a position in which he would work within GDOT but report to the governor.

As the board’s meeting ended on Jan. 15, Golden turned around and handed his resignation letter to Grantham. The board went back into a closed meeting. Then the leaders traipsed over to the governor’s office to see McMurry sworn in as planning director. Immediately afterward, Grantham had an urgent meeting with the governor and his staff. They left with the governor’s blessing to poach McMurry back, if that was the board’s decision, Grantham said.

Following the weekend, that’s just what they did, voting Tuesday to make McMurry GDOT’s commissioner. Now Deal must find a new planning director.

But there was one last piece of drama, five minutes before that GDOT board meeting Tuesday. Member Robert Brown said he was sitting in the board secretary’s office when she looked at her screen, Brown recalled, and said, “Well, guess what?”

A terse one-sentence email had landed in her inbox from board member Dan Moody. Former board member, that is: He was resigning, effective immediately. Tell the board, it said.

So Moody never showed up at decision time to argue what he had earlier told Grantham: He’d like the board to do a search for candidates outside GDOT, and in fact he had his own outside candidate to suggest. Brown said no group decision had been made beforehand.

All the same, a rumor got started that Moody had resigned in protest. Not true, Moody said in a blog comment and text message. He’d landed a new consulting job in Florida and wanted to spend time with his family. Furthermore, he said, he would have voted for McMurry along with everyone else.

Moody did not return phone calls from the AJC.

Grantham had accepted the candidate information Moody sent him. But he and other board members said that in the end, GDOT didn’t have time to launch a search when such a qualified candidate as McMurry was at hand — a known quantity with the high-stakes session bearing down.

“I don’t think we’re under the normal circumstances,” Grantham said, “because of the issues we’re being dealt.”

Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.

Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.

AJC Political Insider columnist Jim Galloway contributed to this article.