CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Byrd White and Jimmy Wriston say they are going to be the chief executive officer and chief operating officer of West Virginia’s roads.
White, who has been West Virginia’s transportation secretary for months, recently added the title of highways commissioner.
Wriston, who had been the acting highways commissioner, now takes the official title of deputy highways commissioner.
“This particular change makes us more in line with a corporate organization, where there is a CEO and a COO,” the two said in a joint statement after MetroNews asked the Division of Transportation about the change..
“As to the division of duties, we will continue operating the same way that we always have: the two of us discuss every major issue that has come to our attention and agree on a course of action.”
They’ll need each other’s support. West Virginia’s extensive, winding roads system has deteriorated to the point that three counties have declared states of emergency.
Gov. Jim Justice put White, his longtime associate, in charge of West Virginia’s transportation agencies in March after firing Secretary Tom Smith. Wriston, a longtime highways employee, then was named the acting deputy.
“For the past five months, we have been joined at the hip; working together to accomplish our number one goal of fixing our state’s road system,” the two said in their statement.
By state code, West Virginia’s transportation secretary makes $95,000 a year. But if that person is also the highways commissioner, then the pay is $120,000 a year.
Tom Smith served in both roles, as did his predecessor, Paul Mattox, starting in 2006. And before that, Fred VanKirk had both jobs, starting in 1995.
The highways commissioner job also has requirements in statute.
State law says the highways commissioner needs to be “experienced in highway planning, finance, construction, maintenance, management and supervision.”
VanKirk, Mattox and Smith were all engineers with work histories in highways agencies.
White has an accounting degree and has had a variety of jobs, most connected to Justice.
Most recently, he was a special assistant to the state tax commissioner. Before that, he was manager of Black Knight Country Club, owned by Justice. He has been a senior vice president of the Justice companies.
When White has been asked previously about his credentials, he has pointed to his time in the early 2000s as an executive with the Vecellio Group, one of the largest road construction companies in the United States.
MetroNews asked about how his qualifications fit the requirements of the highways commissioner job, but that was not addressed in the statement that was provided.
Delegate Jim Butler, co-chairman of the House Technology and Infrastructure Committee, said he hadn’t been aware that White was named highways commissioner. But looking at the requirements stated in the law, Butler believes the requirements are broad enough to cover White’s background.
“While it does list requirements for the position, it does not get specific to the extent of the qualifications, so based on what I see here, Mr. White probably meets the requirements,” said Butler, R-Mason.
He noted that a related portion of state code requires business manager and chief engineer positions in DOH to be registered professional engineers.
“If that were required for the commissioner, it seems it would be stated,” Butler said. “I am not a lawyer, but this is how I read it.”
Not everyone agrees.
“I don’t see where Byrd White would have the qualifications to be highway commissioner. Nothing surprises me,” said Senator Randy Smith, R-Tucker, who has been vocal about the need for road repair.
“If you can unscramble it, I’d like to know why myself. I gave up on trying to know what the governor is doing. I don’t know if he is just giving buddies jobs. It just seems like he doesn’t worry much about qualifications when he hires somebody.”
The highways commissioner job, by itself, pays $92,500 a year.
Wriston would have had to take a pay cut for that. State records show he made $131,480 last year. Besides serving as senior executive engineering adviser for the Department of Transportation, he has simultaneously been State Rail Authority bridge engineer.
“I understand Jimmy Wriston would end up taking a pay cut,” said Senator Charles Clements, R-Wetzel, chairman of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.
“I think we need to take a look at that. When we’ve got people working for the boss and the boss makes less money than they do, that’s an interesting situation.”
Clements said the current hierarchy makes sense if it’s a way to keep Wriston in the leadership team.
“I would rather see Byrd White have that job than to hire someone just to fill a position. Jimmy is a hands on guy. He is out in the field all the time.
“If he is doing that job anyway, which I understand that he is, it wouldn’t bother me if the position sat vacant. If Jimmy Wriston is doing the work, it’s tough to take a pay cut just to get a different title.”
White and Wriston described their work duties as a matter of teamwork.
“At the end of the day, we care less about our titles and more about getting work done,” the two said in their statement.
“We view each other as equal partners – each with our own unique skill sets and diverse backgrounds covering highway planning, finance, construction, maintenance, management, and supervision – that make us a dynamic, highly qualified team.”
The Department of Highways stirred up controversy last month with a consulting contract. Two highways engineers who had been advising the state already on secondary roads were the low bidders.
The request for quotation was tailored fairly narrowly.
The specifications called for a minimum of two employees with at least 15 years experience and “extensive knowledge of the Highways department management structure and operations; Highways personnel needs’ budgeting and project management; governmental and legislative affairs; knowledge of equipment used for highways maintenance activities, and private sector contractors for highways maintenance.”
James “Rusty” Roten and Thomas Badget had already been providing guidance after retiring from long careers with the Department of Highways, making $50 an hour plus travel expenses. But they maxed out what they could earn post-retirement.
So a consulting contract went out, with a firm owned by Roten and Badgett, TB&RR, as the lowest of the four bidders. Their bid for the 150-day consulting contract is valued at $199,050. They were officially awarded the bid on August 30, according to state records.
Senator Smith, who has been critical of the way the consultant bid played out, said the expertise of the two retired engineers must be necessary because of the background of the new highways commissioner.
“The governor, he’s not real big on following state law anyway. If he’d get somebody qualified to take the job, he wouldn’t have to hire a consulting firm that they put together for that,” Smith said.
“By him doing that is the reason we have to hire ex-district managers for consultants. They’d be ahead to do away with the consulting firm and appoint one of them commissioner.”
White and Wriston said their partnership at highways will be fruitful.
“We have cultivated an atmosphere of accountability within the Division of Highways,” their statement concluded, “and we will continue putting our heads together, every step of the way, to continue getting the roads fixed, just as we have over the past several months.”
Delegate Butler says he’s keeping an open mind.
“I am undecided about the performance of the new secretary/commissioner,” he said. “Time will tell.”