FMCSA Administrator Annette Sandberg's resignation announcement last month came as a surprise to those at the agency, as well as those in the trucking industry.
Her departure letter to President Bush made note of the agency's progress in reducing truck fatalities and injuries during her three-year tenure. She also noted that the agency reduced its regulatory backlog by over 68%, an especially positive change since FMCSA had been cited for having a number of regulatory issues that were several years overdue.
What Sandberg did not mention in her letter to FMCSA staff or the President were her plans. Even departing bureaucrats who want to play it close to the vest usually add a sentence to their swan song letter along the lines of “… to pursue other interests.”
This, and the departure itself, had led to wild speculation that Sandberg was somehow forced out, left under acrimonious circumstances or had a private sector job lined up that she was unwilling to discuss.
At presstime, FMCSA spokespeople said that their chief still had not offered an explanation for her resignation nor any insight into her future plans, and she would not comment further.
What is clear, however, is that Sandberg's tenure at FMCSA was, by some accounts, tumultuous and marked by rancor. “She is difficult to get along with,” said one staffer, who asked that his name not be used. “She has her own way of doing things and does not accept differences of opinion,” commented another. Others describe Sandberg as ‘tough,’ ‘tenacious’ and ‘willing to ride roughshod over people.’”
While these complaints could be dismissed as normal employee griping, Sandberg's work history may shed light on these claims.
In 1995, Sandberg was named the country's youngest state police chief and the first woman to reach such a high state office. A former Washington State trooper, Sandberg came up through the ranks during a time of the ‘good old boy’ network and vowed to change things when she was named chief.
Even though Sandberg was determined to change the status quo, the rank and file supported her because she was considered a straight arrow who had been a union leader, defending fellow officers in disagreements with management.
Less than five years later, however, Sandberg had become such a polarizing force within the state police that the troopers union passed a ‘no confidence’ vote against her. According to news accounts, she alienated powerful legislators, some of whom reportedly told then Governor Gary Locke that they refused to work with her.
Sandberg told the Spokane, WA-based Spokesman Review in August, 1999, that she had an ‘uncompromising stubbornness’ which she chalked up to her birth order. “They always say that middle kids are more tenacious, more driven… because they feel they're fighting for a place,” she was quoted as saying. “Psychologically, they'll probably say that's my problem.”
Sandberg's FMCSA tenure was a tough one (she served as Deputy Administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration before coming to FMCSA) as the agency found itself in legal wrangling over its regulations, the most prominent of which was the hours-of-service (HOS) rule, which is still unresolved after being challenged several times in the courts.
The agency also had been chided for its poor handling of the CDL program in the wake of licensing scandals.
Most recently, the Government Accounting Office said the agency made great strides in enforcement programs and actions but was falling short in overseeing joint state-federal safety programs, in part because of “markedly reduced headquarters staffing for MCSAP.”
The agency also took heat for a chartered bus that exploded near Dallas last September, killing 23 elderly Hurricane Rita evacuees from a long-term-care facility. The bus had a defective brake, an illegal license plate and the driver used a Mexican license that was not valid for U.S. operation. Yet the company, Global Limo, had an overall ‘satisfactory’ rating at the time of the crash, albeit a low driver rating.
Sandberg's replacement will have a challenging time, especially with many controversial regulatory items, like electronic onboard recorders, still ahead.