Gov. Gary Herbert announced a major overhaul of his Cabinet on Friday, replacing the heads of the departments of transportation, public safety and corrections in what his office said were “initial changes” to state leadership.
The move was hinted at last month when Herbert’s chief of staff, Derek Miller, said that as much as half of the governor’s 22-member Cabinet could be replaced as Herbert embarks on his first full term as governor. A second wave of changes is expected to be announced later this month.
Most prominent among the departures is Department of Transportation Executive Director John Njord, who was well-liked by legislators and served in the position since 2001, making him the longest serving state transportation director in the country.
In 2010, however, he found himself at the center of a high-profile controversy involving a $13 million payment to a losing bidder on a $1.1 billion contract to rebuild Interstate 15 through Utah County.
More recently it was found that Njord had improperly fired an employee who allegedly leaked information about the I-15 bid, and the department was forced to pay back wages.
He also led the department through the 2002 Winter Olympics, the construction of the Legacy Highway, brought the I-15 rebuild in ahead of schedule and under budget, directed work on the Mountain View Corridor highway and refined design-build contracting.
At the Department of Corrections, Executive Director Tom Patterson has led the state’s prison system since 2007, after an audit found widespread problems in the department and led to the ouster of his predecessor, Scott Carver.
Patterson recently found himself targeted by the Fraternal Order of Police, which was disgruntled with the treatment of prison guards and called for his replacement.
“It has been a humbling and incredible honor to be able to work alongside a team of remarkable people, and I will always remember this journey,” Patterson said in a statement. “Corrections is well-positioned to continue to build upon its accomplishments.”
Department of Public Safety Commissioner Lance Davenport had served as superintendent of the Utah Highway Patrol before becoming commissioner in 2009 when his predecessor, Scott Duncan, resigned citing health reasons.
Insurance Commissioner Neal Gooch, who had previously indicated he planned to retire, will also be leaving.
Njord will stay on until a replacement is found. Patterson’s resignation is effective Jan. 4. Davenport will leave after his term ends June 30.
On Friday, Njord, who recently received a prestigious national award, told members of the Utah Transportation Commission that the particular award is typically an end-of-career achievement and said, “I’m only 51 and feel like I have a lot of mileage left in me.”
In an e-mail to UDOT employees, he announced his retirement with “mixed feelings,” and said he had agreed to stay on through the legislative session at the governor’s request.
“This decision did not come easily as I greatly value my working relationship with each of you and love seeing all the things you accomplish on a day-to-day basis,” Njord wrote. “Together, over the past 12 years, we have changed the face of transportation in the state and have been the envy of many of our counterparts in other states.”
Incoming Senate Majority Whip Stuart Adams, R-Layton, who worked with Njord when Adams was chairman of the Transportation Commission, said UDOT consistently produced projects under budget and ahead of schedule.
“This 12-year period of time will go down in history as one of UDOT’s brightest, in my opinion,” Adams said. “I can’t say enough good about John. However sometimes things must change.”
Adams said Njord may have gotten a raw deal in the I-15 bid fiasco. He said Njord recruited the company that threatened to sue the state because he felt there needed to be more competition. And Adams said he believes Njord saved the state many millions of dollars by negotiating a resolution to a lawsuit over the Legacy Highway that got that project moving again.
Rep. Eric Hutchings, R-Kearns, who chairs the committee that sets the budgets for corrections and public safety, said Patterson “is one of the best corrections innovators we’ve had in this state,” and is surprised he is leaving.
“I’ve seen some exciting new thinking about how we’re going to manage recidivism and re-entry,” he said. “I feel a little chagrined, to tell you the honest truth, that he’s going to be gone, because I feel like we were just starting to make some headway.”
Hutchings also praised Davenport’s commitment to making sure the public and his employees were safe.
“I loved working with him. He understands public safety at the level of the public,” he said. “Seldom do you find someone who is willing to think really strategically about how do I prevent [harm]?”
Miller said in a statement that the governor and senior staff reviewed all of the Cabinet members to “ensure the governor’s priorities are met over the next four years.”
“We sincerely thank every one of these accomplished professionals for their dedication and service to the state of Utah,” Miller said.