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Board's Backing of Catoe Unwavering in Time of Turmoil

"Before you throw the pilot out of the plane, you've got to have evidence that says, 'Hey, your leadership is so flawed that it's contributing to the problems,' " said Jim Graham, a D.C. Council member (D-Ward 1). There is not "a single word" from the National Transportation Safety Board, which is investigating this summer's deadly crash, to suggest that "the current GM contributed in some fashion or another to the June 22 catastrophe," he said.

Catoe's supporters say he has performed well, advocating for Metro with regional and federal leaders, cutting administrative expenses and moving swiftly to address such issues as mobile-phone use by employees. The zero-tolerance policy, ordered by Catoe in July, bans bus and train operators from using mobile devices to call or send text messages in non-emergency situations. Operators are supposed to be fired after the first offense.

Jack Corbett of MetroRiders.Org, a riders group, said the group also supports Catoe's efforts to streamline staff and expenses. But he called on Metro to beef up its safety staff and to be "fully transparent" on ongoing safety issues.

Corbett said the board, not Catoe, is Metro's "weak link." The 12 members -- six of them voting -- are appointed by elected officials or elected in their jurisdictions, so "they have divided loyalties," he said. That makes them reluctant to ask local governments to increase funding for Metro.

Board member Jeff C. McKay, a Fairfax County supervisor (D-Lee), acknowledged that the structure makes for "a level of dysfunction that is frustrating."

When board members criticize Catoe, they usually focus on communications problems. In the weeks after the Red Line crash, internal breakdowns delayed the release of information to riders about continuing issues with track circuits, a vital part of Metrorail's crash-avoidance system and a central part of the NTSB investigation.

Over the Labor Day weekend, track work that shut down three stations left many riders with 40-minute waits for trains because shuttle bus service was poorly coordinated, said McKay, who experienced the delays.

Metro has a corporate strategy and communications department that includes a media relations office with five full-time employees. After the crash, Catoe hired two outside consultants to improve crisis communications.

James Lukaszewski was hired primarily to provide "communications about litigation," spokeswoman Farbstein said. His fee was $4,000 a day; he charged Metro for seven days' work this summer, or $28,000, she said. She said she could not elaborate on what he did because of pending litigation. At least six personal injury lawsuits related to the June 22 crash have been filed against Metro.

Metro hired a second consultant, Andrew Hudson, a former spokesman for Denver, in July under a six-month contract to improve overall communications, internal and external. Hudson, who spent 1 1/2 days interviewing staff, is paid $275 an hour. Farbstein said he will conduct more interviews and deliver recommendations by February.

But despite efforts to improve communications, workers say morale is low. Workers say the management style has been too punitive, even for the smallest infractions. In the agency's top-down system, workers say, they are often frustrated because they do not feel senior managers are addressing long-standing problems, including safety concerns.

"Catoe isn't really standing up for us," said Michael Golash, the union activist leading the no-confidence drive, which is part of his campaign to regain the presidency of Amalgamated Transit Workers Union Local 689. The 7,800 active members make up most of Metro's 10,000 employees. He pointed to grievances about safety issues that he said have been ignored by management. Golash said he has almost 1,000 signatures on his petition, most of them from bus drivers.

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