Kevin Keith has resigned as Missouri's transportation director, and the Highways and Transportation Commission accepted that resignation during a quickly called closed session meeting Wednesday afternoon.
Keith, 52, will retire July 1, but was taking medical leave "effective immediately," MoDOT said in a news release.
"It was a surprise," Chairman Joe Carmichael told the News Tribune. "We certainly regret having to accept Kevin Keith's resignation.
"He's served the department well for a number of years and has, really - particularly in the last several years - stepped up to a pretty big job and has been quite successful at it."
Keith's medical issue was not explained, and he was not available for comment.
"We've got to respect his privacy - that's very important," Carmichael said. "So, we're not going to - anybody in the department - be discussing his medical situation."
State Sen. Mike Kehoe, R-Jefferson City, chaired the commission while Keith was MoDOT's chief engineer.
"My thoughts and prayers are with him and his family," he said. "First and foremost, it's about Kevin as a human being."
Kehoe was a Jefferson City Area Chamber of Commerce official when he first worked with Keith.
"Kevin has always been a guy who's known how to get the most out of Missourians' dollars," Kehoe said. "I think his contributions are being able to figure out how to take a project and make sure it's done on time and under budget."
Commissioners have said similar things about Chief Engineer Dave Nichols, 57, a 29-year MoDOT veteran who was named
Wednesday as the department's interim director.
"We're excited that we have Dave in this position, now," Carmichael said. "We have a great deal of confidence in David, and he has been one of the leaders in this reorganization of MoDOT that we've undergone in this last 18 months."
As director, Keith took the public heat for the "Bolder Five-Year Direction" plan Carmichael mentioned - a plan to save more than $500 million by 2015, by cutting 1,200 employees from the department's payroll over an 18-month period, closing 131 buildings (including three district offices) and selling 740 pieces of equipment.
"When you have to scale back the ... the number of people who work for you, it's very, very difficult on a person," Kehoe said. "Kevin did a great job of leading the department through that."
Carmichael said Nichols should hit the ground running.
"Dave, by virtue of being the No. 2 person in the department, has been involved in all major decisions," he said. "I don't think Kevin's leaving behind any issues, outside the routine, that have to be dealt with."
MoDOT officials have said the department needs $1 billion a year for the next 20 years to make all the transportation improvements Missourians have said they want, and Keith and Nichols have been working with lawmakers - including Kehoe - in developing a proposed once-cent sales tax increase that would provide about $8 billion over a 10-year period.
If lawmakers send it to the ballot, voters statewide would have to OK the proposed constitutional amendment before that tax could go into effect.
MoDOT's Thursday news release said Nichols will be the interim director for at least the next year, and Carmichael said commissioners don't plan an immediate search.
Nichols joined the department in 1984, and was named chief engineer on March 4, 2011.
Keith was named MoDOT director on Nov. 4, 2010, after he'd served nine years as chief engineer.
First coverage, posted at 1:02 p.m. Thursday:
MoDOT Director Kevin Keith steps down and Chief Engineer Dave Nichols assumes the role of interim director for the department.
According to a press release, Keith has submitted his resignation and will leave his role effective immediately, taking a medical leave of absence with plans to retire on July 1.
Nichols will step in as interim MoDOT director for a minimum of one year, according to Missouri Highways and Transportation Commission Chairman Joe Carmichael.
"The commission has accepted Kevin's resignation and we are grateful for his long career of dedicated, results-oriented service to MoDOT and the citizens of Missouri," said Carmichael. "We are committed to a seamless leadership transition for the benefit of our employees, our customers, and our stakeholders."
Interim MoDOT Director Dave Nichols has served with MoDOT for 29 years in a variety of leadership roles, including his work as the department's first director of program delivery prior to becoming chief engineer. He has also served as district engineer for the department's Northwest District headquartered in St. Joseph and worked in MoDOT's Kansas City District.
"The commission is very confident in Dave's ability to carry MoDOT forward in all respects," said Carmichael.