Calls for Metro governance reforms add uncertainty for new general manager

By Ann Scott Tyson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 7, 2010; 8:30 PM

Candidates for the job of running Metro may have second thoughts amid major initiatives to overhaul the agency and redefine the responsibilities of its general manager and board of directors, transit industry experts say.

"Of the people I know who have some interest, they would rather know, as every prudent person would, who is my boss and what is my title going to be," said former Metro general manager John B. Catoe Jr., who left the agency in April.

"Who would go into a job knowing that would change?" asked Catoe, who runs the Catoe Transit Group consulting firm in Santa Monica, Calif.

Metro officials and others with knowledge about the interview process have declined to identify candidates for the general manager's job.

"You'd want to know . . . if there is going to be a change, what the powers are of the general manager or CEO or whatever title they will have," said William Millar, president of the American Public Transportation Association.

Two recent reports recommended changes in Metro's governance structure, criticizing the 1970s framework as outdated and lacking accountability. The National Transportation Safety Board has blamed the culture for producing a string of fatal accidents and perennial mechanical breakdowns, diminishing confidence in a bus and rail system that records more than a million trips each weekday.

The reports - one released last month by a joint task force of the Greater Washington Board of Trade and the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments and another issued last week by Metro's Riders' Advisory Council - concluded that Metro's board of directors micromanages the agency and takes a parochial approach to issues, weakening the role of the general manager.

The Board of Trade report called for the creation of a seven-person Metro governance commission and for allowing the executives of Maryland, Virginia and the District to each appoint a member of the board of directors. The 16-member board is appointed by Maryland and Virginia transportation commissions, the D.C. Council and the federal government. The general manager reports to the board.

Millar said that the Washington transit system is considered a "prestige agency," in part because it is in the nation's capital, so candidates "may be willing to tolerate a little more uncertainty coming here than some other place."

Board members Chris Zimmerman and Jim Graham said that possible changes in the structure might give some candidates pause. But the transit agency has attracted some "pretty superb" applicants, Graham said. "If there was a dearth of qualified candidates, we would be very alarmed at this point. Not only would the search have failed, but everything else would have gone to pieces with it," he said.

Metro board Chairman Peter Benjamin said he doubted that the governance debate would cause hesitation among top candidates.

"Being the chief executive officer of Washington Metro is inherently a complex job that requires someone up to a major challenge," Benjamin said. "I don't think minor changes in a major challenge is going to matter. I don't think that will scare people away."

Catoe's departure in April led to the hiring of former New Jersey Transit chief Richard Sarles as Metro's interim general manager on a one-year contract.

Benjamin said the board's four-person search committee could finish its interviews with a pool of about six to eight candidates by the end of this month. The search committee would then bring about four people before the full board for consideration, he said.

"I would love to have it happen by the end of the year," said Benjamin, who added that he would prefer not to remain as board chairman after his term expires next month.

"It's not where I want to be at this point," he said. "This was a very difficult year; this is a volunteer activity."

Metro's board of directors launched an international search across industries for a new permanent Metro executive in the spring.

Millar said that transit agencies across the country have occasionally brought in leaders from outside the industry with mixed results.

"We have seen success and failure with that," he said, adding that if the top person is not a transit expert, "the number two is expected to be really strong in operations."

But a top-notch manager could be better equipped to deal with overarching issues facing Metro, said David Alpert, a member of the Riders' Advisory Council.

"A strong CEO not from the transit industry. . . could deal with the bigger organizational issues, cost efficiency, labor relations, and that sort of thing," he said.

However, some transit experts said they think Metro needs an experienced transit executive to tackle the problems involved with maintaining the subway system.

"They need somebody that knows how to run the damn subway system, that knows signals," said veteran transit professional David Gunn, who served as Metro's general manager from 1991 to 1994. He conducted a wide-ranging assessment of the problems at Metro this year.

Gunn criticized the search committee, saying that it was "running a beauty contest" in looking for a skilled manager outside the industry.

"The place is collapsing, and the problem starts at the board," he said. "No good operating person is going to go to work for that board."

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