The right Catoe successor could be hard to find

By Ann Scott Tyson
Washington post Staff Writer
Friday, January 15, 2010

In announcing his departure as the 13th general manager of Washington's troubled transit agency, John B. Catoe Jr. offered a glimpse of how his successor should be different.

"All of us know that different situations require different leadership styles," Catoe said in a letter e-mailed yesterday afternoon to Metro's roughly 10,000 employees. "My skill -- and the reason for my past success -- has been leading through empowerment. Now, I feel that Metro is in a period in which a much more directive leadership style is needed."

Catoe had taken some decisive actions in the weeks leading up to his sudden resignation announcement Thursday -- dismissing some senior officials and declaring "war" on barriers to improved safety -- and he acknowledged last month his ultimate responsibility for Metro's failings, saying, "No one is more accountable than I."

But with Metro facing such myriad problems -- from the safety failings Catoe targeted in a now short-lived battle to low employee morale and daunting financial difficulties -- the talk at Metro headquarters and across Washington is "Who will take the job?"

Catoe "may be right that the time has come for a crisis manager," Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D.C.) said in a statement. "But considering the perfect storm of a recession, decreasing ridership, increasing capital costs and the need for new revenue, Metro will be fortunate, indeed, to find a new general manager not only equal to the task, but desirous of taking it on."

In coming days, the Metro board will meet to discuss selecting an acting manager to replace Catoe, who will serve until April 2. The acting chief will probably be chosen from within Metro, according to Metro officials. Next, the transit agency will begin a nationwide search for a permanent manager.

Metro's board of directors, who learned of Catoe's departure at a scheduled meeting Thursday morning, agreed that it will be no easy task to find a successor. Asked whether anyone would be willing to take the helm, board member Chris Zimmerman of Arlington County replied: "I certainly hope so."

Zimmerman called the Metro job "one of the most important in the industry," yet he acknowledged that the performance of the general manager is constrained by the funding and authority provided, both of which are limited.

Metro faces an estimated $40 million budget gap this year, a $175 million shortfall next year and $11 billion in capital needs.

"Anybody we hire is only going to do what they can" depending on time and resources available, Zimmerman said.

At the same time, the Metro chief can be hamstrung by political agendas, generated in part by the structure of the Metro board, which tends to favor parochial interests over regional ones, experts and Metro officials said.

Pierce Homer, Virginia's outgoing transportation secretary, said that Catoe "has labored in a very difficult environment in a governance structure that does not lend itself to good and professional management."

Metro spokeswoman Lisa Farbstein called the job "an incredibly political position," especially in Washington. Congress takes an active interest in Metro, as recently demonstrated by the sharp criticism Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski (D-Md.) leveled at the agency and the coming addition of new federal members to the board.

Metro Board Chairman Jim Graham, of the District, said the board was "obviously very disappointed that we have to face this challenge" of finding a successor.

"There is probably an opportunity here for Metro that we will now proceed to identify and figure out," he said. "We didn't seek this, but we're going to do the best with what we have."

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