Joel Setzer was demoted last week as division engineer of DOT Division 14 and given the newly created position of assistant division engineer. Setzer oversaw DOT operations in a 10-county territory, including Haywood, Jackson, Macon and Swain counties, with an annual budget of $125.31 million. Setzer lives in Cullowhee and works out of the DOT’s regional headquarters in Sylva.
The reason for the demotion is unclear.
“They simply decided a change was needed, but they did not disclose why. People did tell me it was not conduct or performance related,” Setzer said.
State DOT officials confirmed that.
“It wasn’t because of a specific project or circumstance,” said Julia Casadonte, DOT spokesperson in Raleigh.
Setzer’s salary was lowered from $120,000 to $99,000 with the title change.
The position of assistant division engineer did not exist previously and was newly created for Setzer. Only three other DOT divisions — out of a total of 14 statewide — have such a position of assistant division engineer.
By creating the new position, the state now has a bigger overall salary load being paid out within Division 14.
A new division engineer was named to replace Setzer: Ed Green, a 29-year DOT veteran who has gradually advanced up the ladder during his career. He most recently was serving as the maintenance engineer for DOT Division 13, the territory that encompasses Buncombe County.
Setzer said he plans to stay, is pleased to continue working for DOT in his new role and looks forward to working with Green.
Setzer was informed of his demotion last Tuesday.
“I had been hearing rumors that this could come. I had not heard anything official, so it was a surprise,” Setzer said.
The letter Setzer received from the state told him he was being “transferred” to a new position, but he has openly referred to it as a demotion.
“My letter said it was transfer, but when you move down to a lower pay grade position, most people would call that a demotion. I am not afraid to call it that,” Setzer said.
Like other influential state positions that carry broad-stroke decision-making power, the job of DOT division engineer is not protected under the state personnel act. The majority of state employees can’t be demoted or fired without grounds, namely poor job performance or bad conduct.
But the position of a DOT division engineer is exempt.
“They can remove you from that position without cause. They did not need to provide a reason. I knew it was that kind of job when I took it,” Setzer said.
In other words, he knew it could come with the territory.
“This is not the first time where something like this has happened,” Casadonte said.
Two of the three other assistant division engineers in the state ended up with the job under similar circumstances — they were demoted from the top leadership position for their division to an “assistant” in 2012.
Often, philosophical shifts or new political tides can trickle down from Raleigh and result in leadership changes in top jobs. Setzer is a Democrat in a now-Republican-dominated state political landscape.
The only official reason issued by the DOT in Raleigh chalked it up to a general changing of the guard.
“This decision reflects a shift in direction as the department continues to move forward with its goals of operating more efficiently and improving customer service,” Chief Deputy Secretary of Operations Jim Trogdon said in a press release.
Historically, the DOT has been viewed as a large, unwieldy bureaucratic machine fraught with cronyism and overspending.
A new era of accountability in the DOT was ushered in by former Democratic Gov. Beverly Perdue with pledges by McCrory to continue the overhaul.
Under Perdue, a more objective system was put in place for deciding what roads got built. It is also a more bottom-up approach that gives local communities more voice. Power to advance one road project over another — including the particular design or particular location for a new road — was almost entirely concentrated among politically appointed DOT board appointees in the past.
The DOT was also known for its bullish approach and “daddy-knows-best” attitude to building new roads without always being sensitive to local wishes. At times, the DOT was at loggerheads with local communities over road projects, including several road projects in Haywood and Jackson counties during the past decade.
Being more receptive to local input is an attitude shift the DOT has tried to instill as part of its new culture.
Setzer, for his part, says he was on board with the new DOT paradigm that gives local input a bigger seat at the table. Setzer said during his tenure he worked to improve “public outreach methods and practices” and establish new partnerships with a transportation committee made up of local leaders from the Division 14 region.
But it has been a challenge to convince the public during the past five years that the DOT had truly entered a new era of accountability. Setzer said he wished he could have done more to fix the “lack of trust” some citizens have of DOT.
“Part of my passion for public participation and being open in our actions and decision making was to attempt to eliminate this lack of trust,” Setzer said. “I feel progress was made in this area but would have liked to have seen more progress.”
Setzer said he regrets that his leadership did not align with the direction of the new state administration.
“I share the goals of Gov. McCrory of improving efficiency and customer service,” Setzer said.
Setzer’s tenure the past five years has been a time of shrinking budgets.
Between 2008 and 2012, Division 14 employees based in Jackson County went from 298 to 247.
McCrory put in place a new formula for road funding that has been criticized as potentially unfair to rural areas, one that may make it harder for the mountains to compete. Each DOT Division will no longer get its own dedicated pot of road building money, but a road project in the mountains will now have to go head to head with projects in urban areas when vying for funds.
One blemish on Division 14 during Setzer’s tenure was a fraud and waste investigation by the N.C. Auditor’s Office last year that uncovered mismanagement of state funds, equipment and contracts within the Haywood County DOT maintenance unit, according to DOT officials.
Setzer’s demotion was not tied to that, however. At the time of the audit, employees deemed responsible were reprimanded, let go or transferred. Setzer was not one of them, and said it would be incorrect to tie his demotion more than a year later to that investigation.
Setzer said he has stood up against fraud and waste during his career.
“My demotion is not associated with those audit findings. For people to associate them is hurtful,” Setzer said, citing previous reports by other media outlets to that effect.
That assertion was confirmed by DOT officials in Raleigh.
“The decision was not about the audit. That is not the reason,” said Casadonte.
Another blemish on Division 14’s record under Setzer was an astronomical cost overrun on what was supposed to be simple entrance road to Southwestern Community College. Setzer fast-tracked the entrance road, which was criticized as being a political favor for SCC leaders. Setzer said the entrance road would be an easy project with a low cost of just $6 million. It ballooned to $24 million.
Meanwhile, two highway projects that Setzer has spent years advocating for are indefinitely on hold — partly due to lack of concrete data that they are truly needed. The “Southern Loop” bypass in Jackson County and Corridor K in Graham County are both highway projects Setzer has vigorously promoted. But both are in limbo due to questions from permitting agencies, public opposition or the DOT’s own higher-ups in Raleigh questioning whether there is a legitimate need for them given the cost and environmental impacts.
The town of Waynesville was so displeased with a design the DOT came up with recently for a redesign of South Main Street that it hired its own consultant to come up with an alternative design plan.
Setzer said he is happy with the state’s selection for his replacement and looks forward to working with Green.
“I find him to be a great person and a capable engineer,” Setzer said. Monday, the two went to lunch together at Ryan’s Steak House in Sylva. It goes to show that the two are friendly and ready to work with each other.
“For the record, I like Ed Green,” Setzer replied in good humor when asked.
Caitlin Bowling contributed to this story.
Accomplishments under Joel Setzer:
• Repair of Interstate 40 after the 2009 rockslide
• Repair of the major roadway and bridge damage inflicted by the remnants of Hurricane’s Francis and Ivan
• Worked with the Rural Planning Organizations to develop criteria for ranking new projects
• Led several studies to reduce number of employees and equipment to become more efficient while retaining the ability to respond to emergencies
• Improvement of customer service