Metro Board Discussing Ouster of Top Official
Friday, December 9, 2005
A majority of Metro board members have become disillusioned with the performance of the agency's top executive, Richard A. White, and have begun closed-door discussions about how to remove him from the job, according to several sources familiar with the talks.
The sources spoke on the condition that they not be identified because the conversations took place in a closed session. It is unclear when the board will vote on the matter, but the sources said there was widespread agreement that White should leave. The remaining issues concerned severance pay and other logistics, they said.
White said yesterday that he has no plans to resign.
"I'm an at-will employee, and I work at the pleasure of the board," White said. "We've done a lot of good things. We've had some hard times. Each time we've faced adversity, we've generally been able to identify solutions. But everyone works for a boss -- and, in my case, a collection of bosses."
Hired in 1996, White is the longest-serving top executive in Metro's 29-year history. He has weathered a spate of high-profile problems in recent years, including the death of a track worker two months ago and both a train crash and a scandal involving cashiers pocketing parking fees last year.
Metro has faced increasing scrutiny in the past year from local officials and Congress. In July, Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va.) introduced legislation that would require Metro to hire an inspector general to keep an eye on spending and management, investigate employee reports of wrongdoing and report on the findings.
Davis said his plan was prompted by articles in The Washington Post detailing how Metro mismanaged nearly $1 billion in rail car and escalator projects and spent millions on projects not directly related to its core transportation mission. The articles also reported that the agency ignored safety warnings and failed to manage effectively its program to transport the disabled, which is the target of a grand jury investigation and a civil suit.
Metro's board of directors had put White on notice that it wanted improvements in several areas. The board said White needed to connect better with Metro's 10,000 employees and its 1.1 million daily rail and bus riders. About a year ago, White started riding the Metro to work instead of driving his Metro-issued sport-utility vehicle from his Fairfax County home.
Three of the 12 board members -- Gordon Linton of Montgomery County, Catherine M. Hudgins of Fairfax and Jim Graham of the District -- began a review last spring of White's performance and told their colleagues during a closed meeting last week that they did not see enough progress, sources said. White, 53, was not present during those discussions.
"I don't have the benefit of hearing what's going through the minds of 12 people," White said yesterday, adding that he was given a general outline of the discussion by the board's chairman, T. Dana Kauffman of Fairfax. "It would be nice to hear that and engage in a two-way conversation."
White's contract does not expire until June 2009. If the board votes to fire him, his contract calls for a severance package equal to about a year's salary. His salary is $259,000, and he also receives a $50,000 living allowance.
White's career was on the rise when he came to Metro in 1996. He had worked as a federal bureaucrat, as a manager at New Jersey Transit and as the top executive at Bay Area Rapid Transit in San Francisco before he was tapped for the key job at "America's subway" in the nation's capital.
For much of his early tenure at Metro, things ran smoothly, and White received good reviews from the board. He saved the Metrobus system, which was on the verge of dissolving from lack of support in 1998, developed Metro's first strategic plan in 20 years and presided over a rapid increase in ridership. Last year, White convinced the local governments that help pay for Metro to commit to a $1.5 billion plan to rehabilitate the system and prepare for further ridership increases.
Last year, White was elected president of the transit industry's main trade organization, the American Public Transportation Association, raising his profile even higher.
He is fastidious in appearance, obsessive about preparation and often the first to arrive at headquarters in the morning. Several years ago, he persuaded the board to add "chief executive officer" to his title of general manager because he wanted to be on par with private-industry executives.
But this year, board members increasingly have expressed doubts about his leadership. Recently, Robert J. Smith, who represents Maryland on the Metro board, said he worried about White's ability to handle the new $1.5 billion capital program.
Over the past six months, White has taken steps to defend his image. His media relations office began tracking daily calls from reporters and characterizing stories in internal memos as "positive" or "negative." The office also has prepared "talking points" for Metro officials and board members to coordinate their responses to news reports.