Another major board project is to define the board’s role, responsibilities, and how it interacts with Sarles, the low-key former head of New Jersey Transit who served as the system’s interim chief for about 10 months before being named its permanent general manager in January.
Mary Hynes, the new board member from Arlington, is leading that effort as head of the board’s newly created governance committee. “We have a crisis and we need to define how we work together,” said Hynes, a member of the Arlington County Board.
“The board needs to come to an understanding of what decisions the board makes verses the general manager,” Hynes said. Overall, the consensus is that the board should focus on setting policy and holding the general manager accountable, while avoiding interfering in lower-level staff decisions, as it has in the past.
The board is also working to empower Sarles and his senior managers, who some board members say have been demoralized by high leadership turnover, layoffs and criticism in recent years.
“There is a real loss of confidence at the management level of Metro. They expect to get beat up on,” said Tommy Wells, a new board member from the District. “We want to instill that they have to make decisions and the board will support them.”
One of the first actions of many of the new board members was to select Sarles. The choice of Sarles was unanimous, and several new board members said they expect him to move more boldly into the public spotlight.
“While I really like General Manager Sarles, you have to know he was a safe choice, he was a railroad guy,” Wells said.
Wells, Downs and others say one reason they are raising big, contentious issues is to encourage Metro’s top leadership to address such topics publicly. “The general manager has to feel confident that he can bring issues to the board that are controversial,” Wells said.
Metro leaders have tended to allow the board to speak for them, Wells said. “There is not this strong voice from Metro itself, reassuring folks we have this under control and we are going to fix it,” he said.
New board members — all of whom regularly ride the system, unlike some past members — are also emerging as strong rider advocates.
Kathy Porter, a new board member from Maryland, has grilled Metro officials on the drawbacks of the policy of random bag searches, a tactic widely criticized by riders. The old board did not discuss the policy when Metro Transit Police Chief Michael Taborn announced its launch in December.
“Anything that has a major impact on how the riders interact with the system should be something the board considers,” Porter said. “Those things should be discussed in public.” Porter was mayor of Takoma Park from 1997 to 2007.
Alvin Nichols, former chief of staff for community investments at Fannie Mae, said that as a rail rider, his top focus will be on Metro’s chronic escalator failures. “Escalators are the thing that stand out the most,” he said. “That would be the number one issue,” said Nichols, who was confirmed Friday by the Maryland Senate for a three-year appointment to the board.
Former Maryland congressman Michael D. Barnes, nominated to the board this month, was at the ribbon-cutting for Metrorail in 1976 and has watched the once-sparkling system tarnish over the years. “It’s no secret that Metro has a lot of issues,” Barnes said. “I hope I can help.”