Like a lot of Minnesotans, Representative Jim Oberstar can’t understand why there isn’t going to be a public NTSB hearing on the collapse of the 35W bridge. Just like confidence in the Minnesota Department of Transportation has been spiraling down since the August disaster, confidence in the NTSB has been declining as rumors and conspiracy theories multiply. Simply put, if there isn’t a transparent public hearing, the public is not going to believe the report on the cause of the collapse.
Earlier this year the NTSB voted 3 to 2 not to hold a hearing based on staff recommendations that a hearing would delay the report.
Rep. Oberstar, who chairs the House committee that recommends funds for the National Transportation Safety Board, was angry over the decision for several reasons. Originally the NTSB told him it was an unanimous decision. Also, NTSB Chair Mark Rosenker erroneously told reporters that a design flaw was the cause of the collapse, a statement that Rosenker later retracted. Those actions plus Rosenker’s long history as a Republican campaign organizer dating back to the Nixon administration has Oberstar suspecting that politics, not policy is driving the decision to avoid a public hearing. Oberstar told Rosenker that he values accuracy and transparency over a speedy report.
Rosenker agreed with Oberstar that public hearings can be a both a teaching moment and a learning moment for the board, but did not commit to a public hearing. Instead he promised “an excellent sunshine presentation where this will get a public airing like nothing we have done before” when the investigation and report is complete. Rosenker said the investigation would be complete before the end of the year. Oberstar responded that Rosenker had just made the best argument for an open public hearing.
“How Conspiracy Theories Get Born”
Rep. Peter DeFazio of Oregon quizzed Rosenker on why the staff memo recommending no public hearing was a confidential document. Rosenker replied that sometimes it contains information that “is sensitive”.
DeFazio then tore into Rosenker. “This is how conspiracy theories get born. It’s like your staff secretly makes a recommendation. You have a split vote, three to two. You decide not to hold a public hearing. I understand what you say, the end point disclosure is going to be. But that’s going to be the point at which you’ve made conclusions.
“I also understand that a fair amount of work goes into holding a hearing, but I don’t see why it would cause four months delay in the process unless you’re saying that something might come up at the hearing that would trigger further investigation or a different direction in that investigation”.
Rosenker said he was going on historical data that shows a public hearing adds “two to four months” to an investigation.
Rep. DeFazio said he didn’t find the two to four month delay “credible”. Rep. Oberstar echoed that opinion.
“Last year our committee, our various subcommittees held 17 hearings. We heard from 710 witnesses. 394 hours of hearings. If your board staff can’t conduct a hearing on one issue, then they need to come and take lessons from ours.”
Rep. Oberstar’s letter to Chairman Rosenker