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NTSB chair criticized by colleagues

By BILL ADAIR, Times Staff Writer
Published September 17, 2004

WASHINGTON - Three members of the National Transportation Safety Board are unhappy with Chairwoman Ellen Engleman Conners for managing the watchdog agency with a heavy hand.

The board members have sent her a letter that indicates she has restricted their travel, blocked their hiring and tried to limit their conversations with NTSB staff and the news media. She has even suggested what clothes they should wear to board meetings.

The three members - Carol Carmody, Richard Healing and Deborah Hersman - wrote 31/2 pages of complaints. They said they wanted to hire their own staff, as NTSB members have in the past. They want to be able to speak with the news media because, under the NTSB's policies, "no board member is precluded from responding to a request for an interview." And they asked for complete freedom to talk with investigators and other NTSB staffers.

"It is crucial that board members be able to work directly with professional staff and have access to to their expertise," they wrote in the letter, which was obtained by the St. Petersburg Times.

They also said they were concerned about the chairman's "Safety With a Team" or SWAT program, in which many of the board's long-standing safety recommendations are being settled. The three board members warned that the program should not be used to "settle for lesser actions that fall short" of the original goal.

The letter indicates Engleman Conners has not consulted other board members before giving testimony in Congress, though she was representing the entire agency. The board members asked that proposed testimony "be circulated in time for each board member to offer comment and approval."

The NTSB, an independent agency, is run by five political appointees. They determine the probable cause of transportation accidents and make recommendations to prevent similar accidents.

The chairman is the first among equals, handling administrative duties and occasionally acting as a spokesman. But historically, those duties have been shared with the other board members.

Members have been free to travel so they can watch accident investigations and attend conferences, allowed to hire their own staff and speak with the news media.

Engleman Conners, formerly with the U.S. Department of Transportation, was appointed to the safety board by President Bush. In her outer office, she prominently displays large photographs of Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney. That raised eyebrows among some safety board officials because the agency is supposed to be independent so it can criticize the administration if necessary.

Privately, board members have complained for months about her efforts to control many aspects of the agency. She asked some of them what clothes they planned to wear to meetings so the colors and patterns would not clash with her clothing.

John Goglia, a former board member, joked at his retirement party in April that she made recommendations about his ties. "She once recommended I wear bright, lively ties," he said this week. "I even went out and bought some."

Carmody and Healing declined to comment on the letter. Hersman was not available.

Engleman Conners did not respond to phone calls on Thursday. NTSB spokesman Ted Lopatkiewicz said "her door remains open to her colleagues" and she "hopes that board members will continue to focus on the important mission of the board rather than on bureaucratic distractions."

Mark Rosenker, an NTSB member often aligned with Conners, said the Bush and Cheney photos don't indicate favoritism and said disagreements among the board members are not serious.

"Some people's style is different from others," he said. "I don't have any problem with the style. Others might."

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