When Scott Magruder took the job of public information officer for the Nevada Department of Transportation, he thought he’d be there about five years.
On Friday, more than 26 years later, he’s retiring as the senior PIO in state service. During that time, Magruder, now 52, has worked for five governors and five NDOT directors, and dealt with hundreds of reporters and thousands of calls from irate residents.
“It went by quick,” he said. “It went by like a jet stream.”
He said that throughout his tenure, he has tried to minimize the number of news stories quoting the PIO.
“I believe we have the experts here, and I’ve encouraged them to talk,” he said. “We’re getting away from where all you see is the PIO quoted. Get the engineers, the experts.”
He said he has been lucky that all of his directors — Garth Dull, Tom Stephens, Jeff Fontaine, Susan Martinovich and now Rudy Malfabon — agreed with his push for access. All, he said, were willing to deal directly with the press and public.
Much has changed in his time at transportation. When he started in 1986, he said, the freeway between Reno and Carson City ended at Damonte Lane in south Reno. Now I-580 runs all the way to Carson City.
When he started, U.S. 95 in Las Vegas was four lanes. Depending on what stretch you’re driving, it’s that many or more in each direction now.
He said his phone number is both a blessing and a curse. He fought to get 888-7777 but says the curse is everybody remembers it — and uses it.
“We do get the irate phone calls,” he said. “Every pot hole, every light that’s out.”
But he said when he answers instead of a machine, it helps calm the caller a bit because “they didn’t get a voice mail; they got a live voice.”
He said the calls are more immediate now because in the 1980s, nobody had a cellphone. He didn’t get the calls until the caller got home.
A significant change that reduced complaint calls, Magruder said, occurred when NDOT started doing much more major construction at night instead of during peak traffic hours.
“It’s cut down the angry calls,” he said. “Nighttime really cut down people’s frustrations.”
He said he remembers the headline in the Las Vegas Sun after a paving machine broke down on Paradise Red snarling traffic outside the first major Comdex convention: “They paved Paradise and put up a parking lot” — a reference to the Joni Mitchell song.
One of the most prominent memories, he said, is the Reno flood of 1997, when Truckee waters spilled across I-80 in Sparks, filling up the old Helms pit — now the Sparks Marina — and nearly collapsing part of the westbound freeway, forcing closure for several days while repairs were made. He and other NDOT officials, he said, worked through the night and long hours for several days dealing with that.
When he started, Magruder said, it was only a photographer and him. Now he supervises two PIOs in Las Vegas as well as one in Carson City and a photographer.
He said one of his advantages has been the stability of the Capitol press corps members, many of whom have been around as long as he has.
“It’s nice because you always knew who to call,” he said.
Magruder said that after his last day Friday, he plans to be a taxi service for his sons, 11 and 14, for about six months “until I decide what I want to do next.”