Tim Gatz wins Senate committee approval for Transportation post despite senator's objection

Tim Gatz, Director of OTS and State Transportation Secretary, listens during a meeting of the Oklahoma Turnpike Authority at the Oklahoma Department of Transportation Tuesday, January 3, 2023.
Tim Gatz, Director of OTS and State Transportation Secretary, listens during a meeting of the Oklahoma Turnpike Authority at the Oklahoma Department of Transportation Tuesday, January 3, 2023.
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The embattled director of the Oklahoma Department of Transportation could see his tenure at the agency continue after a Senate committee voted 8-1 to advise and consent to his nomination.

Tim Gatz, who was forced earlier this year to resign his positions as director of the Oklahoma Turnpike Authority and as Gov. Kevin Stitt's cabinet secretary for transportation, was endorsed Tuesday by the Senate's Aeronautics and Transportation Committee, and his nomination to head the state Transportation Department now goes to the full Senate for a vote.

Gatz's resignations from the other posts were forced by an opinion written by Oklahoma Attorney General Gentner Drummond earlier this year. Drummond's opinion said Gatz shouldn’t be allowed to serve as the executive director of both ODOT and the Oklahoma Turnpike Authority while at the same time serving as transportation secretary in Stitt's cabinet.

Gatz, who said he'd been with ODOT for 34 years, told lawmakers Tuesday he also "spent a little bit of time with the turnpike authority." He said the state's transportation system was in better shape now than it had been in previous years.

"Transportation in Oklahoma in general terms, the condition of our system, because of the support of the Legislature, diligence and a plan," he said. "We have better conditions on our highways today than we have in my tenure. It's taken a lot of effort."

Questions raised over Oklahoma train service, ODT and OTA policies

During the meeting Gatz was questioned by Sen. Mary Boren, a Democrat from Norman. Boren asked Gatz why improvements to the train service that moves oil out of Cushing's oilfield had become a priority. Gatz answered that it was due to the volume of oil that was being moved on rail.

"I think that has become more challenging as we look to the future," he said.

Boren also attempted to question Gatz's decision making process and what tools his agency used to inform Oklahomans who were affected by ODOT and OTA policies. "I do have two areas I want to clarify, because you're taking on this role and moving forward," she said.

More: Stopped trains at OKC crossings aren't just annoying. They can be dangerous | Opinion

However, as Boren began asking about the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and Gatz's involvement in the state's "Access Oklahoma" plan, she was stopped by Sen. John Haste, R-Broken Arrow, the committee chair.

"Senator, is this related to the turnpike authority?" Haste asked.

Access Oklahoma is an Oklahoma Turnpike Authority plan announced by Gatz and Stitt in 2022 to add new roads to the state's turnpike system, one of them opposed by some residents in Boren's district.

Boren answered her question "was related to decision making."

Haste: "Okay, but Director Gatz's role is with the Department of Transportation now, where at one point he was involved with others. So, we need to stay focused on the Department of Transportation."

Over the course of the meeting, Haste stopped several of Boren's questions, saying Boren "needed to stay on ODOT."

Tuesday afternoon, Haste defended his actions saying he "wanted to focus questions on the merits of his track record of success and for consideration of continuing his role as the director of the Department of Transportation."

"Sen. Boren was allowed to ask questions on this respective position and this position alone," Haste said in a statement to The Oklahoman. "I will never silence silence the voice of a Senate colleague, but as chairman of the Senate Aerospace and Transportation Committee, I didn’t want this to become something it was not and an inquisition of Mr. Gatz or about a position he was not being nominated for in our committee meeting today.”

Oklahoma Senate will next decide whether to confirm Tim Gatz

Following the committee's vote on Gatz, Boren issued a media statement. She said her Senate district "has been in turmoil over a major transportation plan under Mr. Gatz’s leadership that failed to include stakeholder involvement and lacked transparency in the purchase of surrounding land."

“Today the Aeronautics and Transportation Committee had the opportunity to consider the qualifications of Tim Gatz to continue serving as the executive director of ODOT," Boren said. "I hoped for the chance to talk about ways that Mr. Gatz would restore trust with my constituents. Unfortunately, the confirmation process prevented us from publicly having this kind of candid conversation."

Boren said she expected the full Senate to confirm Gatz to be the chief executive officer of an agency that oversees about $1.6 billion in taxpayer funds.

"I am convinced that it is entirely appropriate to address the legitimate concerns that have developed since 2021 before the Senate confirms him to continue leading ODOT," she said. "I believe if we were in a business setting, Mr. Gatz and I would have been able to have that conversation, but in a supermajority, politically divisive environment, candid and corrective conversations are rare. Despite this predictable and disappointing outcome, I am resolved to continue demanding that government is accountable to ordinary people and do my best to work in a bipartisan way to proactively include stakeholders, prevent wasteful spending, and advance sound projects.”

A Senate floor vote on Gatz's nomination has not been scheduled yet. State lawmakers have until 5 p.m. May 31 to finish their work.

This article originally appeared on Oklahoman: Oklahoma Senate committee approves Tim Gatz nomination for ODOT