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A vacancy at the helm

Romney begins search for Turnpike successor

Matthew Amorello left a podium in the North End after resigning as Turnpike Authority chairman. His departure will be effective Aug. 15.
Matthew Amorello left a podium in the North End after resigning as Turnpike Authority chairman. His departure will be effective Aug. 15. (Globe Staff Photo / David L. Ryan)

Governor Mitt Romney turned his attention yesterday to finding a new manager for the largest and one of the most troubled public works projects in the nation, after Turnpike Authority chairman Matthew J. Amorello announced his resignation under pressure following the death of a passenger crushed in a car in a Big Dig tunnel.

Amorello's resignation, which takes effect Aug. 15, caps a 3 1/2-year effort by Romney to take control of the Turnpike Authority. The governor had won control over safety inspections of the Big Dig under a bill passed by the Legislature two weeks ago, and now Amorello's resignation effectively hands him everything else he's wanted: control over who leads the Turnpike Authority, oversight of the $14.6 billion project, and an end to the bitter wrangling between his administration and the independent agency.

``A new era of reform and accountability at the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority has begun," Romney said at a State House press conference. ``Patronage will be replaced by professionalism, and secrecy will be replaced by openness."

Romney said the state will conduct a nationwide search to find Amorello's successor, who will hold a new title, executive director of the Turnpike Authority, and run day-to-day operations of the agency. Romney offered no time frame, saying that his administration has received resumes from applicants, although his aides would not release names.

``There are people under consideration," said one aide, declining to name them.

Romney also predicted that some Turnpike Authority employees would lose their jobs when the new executive director takes over, saying that the new leader will probably want to assemble his or her own team. But he stressed that it wouldn't be an ``everybody's-gone kind of mentality."

The new executive director probably will not be someone who has worked on the Big Dig, the governor said, and will not necessarily have to be an engineer. He cited as a model former Massport chief executive officer Craig P. Coy, a former Coast Guard officer and businessman whose appointment in 2002 was hailed as a departure from that agency's history of patronage hires.

``This has been a challenging job, but one that is very much worth doing," Amorello said yesterday. ``I am sure there are things I could have done better, but I've made every decision in my time here and will continue to do so in the coming weeks because I truly believe it is the right thing to do."

The departure of Amorello, 48, will usher in a new leadership model at the Turnpike Authority, which has had an unusual structure in which the board chairman also runs the agency. Under a law passed two years ago, the state transportation secretary was to become chairman of the agency's five-member board on July 1, 2007. The new executive director would then be hired by the board. That timetable probably will be moved up.

Romney, who has appointed a majority of board members, said he would seek to move to the new system as soon as possible. Administration officials say they could change the Turnpike Authority structure without legislative approval. Romney said he expected to appoint Transportation Secretary John Cogliano as chairman of the Turnpike Authority board and begin a broad search for an executive director with experience managing large construction projects.

``Really, the model here is very different," said Romney, who has painted Amorello, a Republican and former state senator, as the embodiment of Beacon Hill patronage. ``It's saying, the person who runs the Pike should not have as their primary qualification political experience, but rather their qualification should be management experience, managing a major project."

Romney also said he had asked officials in the federal government and in other states for suggestions and had received some recommendations. Romney has fewer than six months left as governor, but he said yesterday he hoped the new executive director would remain after he leaves office.

Romney aides said it was unclear whether Cogliano will run the Turnpike Authority after Aug. 15 or whether the agency will pick an interim chief executive. The Romney administration will retain control over inspections and repairs resulting from the July 10 tunnel collapse on the Interstate 90 connector that killed 38-year-old Milena Del Valle of Jamaica Plain.

Amorello's announcement ended several weeks of political turmoil. Until yesterday, he had resisted every call for him to step down, from Romney, Attorney General Thomas F. Reilly, Mayor Thomas M. Menino, and even his top allies in the Legislature. But after Wednesday, when a Supreme Judicial Court justice denied his bid to block a hearing where Romney sought to remove him as chairman, Amorello concluded that it was time to go.

``I have stated to all of you that I would not resign because I didn't think it would fix anything or magically make all the issues associated with the Big Dig go away; I still don't believe it will," Amorello said at a press conference at a North End park where the elevated Central Artery once stood.

``But to go into a hearing with a foregone conclusion makes no sense for me, my family, any of those who have taken part in this process, or the public," he said.

Under the deal Amorello signed with the Turnpike Authority, he will continue to receive his $223,000 salary and current benefits through Feb. 15. Amorello will also be indemnified against any legal claims so long as he is determined to have acted lawfully and in the best interests of the agency. He agreed not to enter into any contract worth more than $25,000 without the approval of a majority of the board.

Turnpike officials refused a reporter's request yesterday to be provided details of his pension.

Amorello's ouster represents a major victory for Romney, who has called for his resignation ever since the discovery in 2004 of hundreds of leaks in Big Dig tunnels. Romney, considering a presidential run in 2008, won a similar high-profile political duel nearly three years ago when he forced out William M. Bulger, former Senate president, as president of the University of Massachusetts.

But some say that Romney's push to get rid of Amorello was more about politics than making sure the Big Dig was safe.

``Obviously the person in charge has to pay a price, but . . . the notion that somehow these problems are going to be corrected because Matt Amorello isn't there just isn't accurate," said US Representative Martin T. Meehan, a Lowell Democrat.

On Aug. 15, the problems become wholly Romney's.

``He has ownership of it now," Meehan said. ``He may wish he [didn't]."

Former Turnpike Authority member Jordan Levy said yesterday that Amorello realized that the public and political currents were too strong. ``At this point, there was nowhere else to go," said Levy, who had worked closely with the chairman since Amorello, a former state highway commissioner, was appointed in 2002.

A Supreme Judicial Court justice dealt another blow to Amorello yesterday, ruling that he illegally orchestrated a change in the Turnpike Authority bylaws last month that gave him sole authority to call meetings and set meeting agendas. Romney aides said they will now move quickly to schedule a board meeting, so that bylaws changes can be rescinded and the members can discuss the tunnel accident and its implications on toll revenues and the agency's bond rating.

John Ellement of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Scott Helman can be reached at shelman@globe.com; Andrea Estes can be reached at estes@globe.com.

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