Metro Board facing major turnover

Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 20, 2010; 8:24 PM

Metro's board of directors is undergoing a major personnel shift - potentially one of the biggest in years - with the tenure of as many as eight of the 14 members in question.

The turnover comes at a critical time for the Washington transit agency, which is within weeks of selecting a permanent general manager who will report to the board. While some members say they welcome the fresh insights that would come from the changes, others are concerned about the loss of leadership experience.

Some of the changes were expected as fallout from recent elections. But the departures are also a reaction to criticism leveled in two recent reports on Metro's 1970s-era governance structure that describe the body as outmoded, lacking accountability and transparency, parochial, and overly involved in day-to-day decisions. Several board members acknowledged frustration at serving in the time-consuming position for little or no pay or public appreciation.

Board members cannot be paid by Metro, according to the compact that governs the transit agency. The jurisdictions provide widely varying compensation, with Maryland providing $20,000 a year to voting board members, Virginia $50 per meeting, and the District nothing, board members said.

"It's equivalent to an honorarium or expenses," said board Chairman Peter Benjamin, of Maryland. "I don't make minimum wage on what the state pays me; it's a non-amount," he said.

Benjamin is expected to cede the chairman's role to Virginia board member Catherine Hudgins when his term expires in January. However, he plans to remain on the board.

"To an extent, it's thankless and it's very time-consuming," said Maryland board member Elizabeth Hewlett, one of those who wants to step down. "Obviously no one likes to be criticized, especially when you are working so very hard."

Board member Jeff McKay and other members faulted the reports - one by a task force organized by the Greater Washington Board of Trade and the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, and the other by Metro's Riders' Advisory Council - for making recommendations that were unrealistic, detrimental, or reflected a lack of understanding of how the board works.

"It's terribly frustrating if you devote half of your life to this, and all they do is malign you," said McKay, of Fairfax.

The Board of Trade report said that the Metro board should serve mainly as a policy-making body with a regional focus. It called for allowing the mayor of the District and governors of Virginia and Maryland to each appoint members to the 16-member board, institute term limits, and consider eliminating the veto power of individual members.

"Some of the comments were not well-received," said Maryland member Gordon Linton, who decided to leave before the reports came out, but officially announced his departure Thursday. "It was wondered whether they understand how the board actually functions."

The expected departures cover all three jurisdictions. Chris Zimmerman of Arlington stepped down abruptly Thursday after more than 10 years on the board. Mary Hynes, a member of the Arlington County Board and the Northern Virginia Transportation Commission (NVTC), will take his place, Zimmerman said.

Linton will depart as soon as he is replaced by former Takoma Park mayor Kathy Porter. Hewlett said she intends to leave. "My desire is not to be reappointed," she said.

All four members from the District could be replaced soon, with Mayor-elect Vincent C. Gray (D) expected to name two new members, and D.C. Council Chairman Kwame R. Brown (D- At Large) considering a move to replace two others, including veteran board member Jim Graham (D-Ward -1).

Graham, who has served for 12 years, declined to comment on reports that Brown would not reappoint him.

"I recognize that there is a lot of pressure for new approaches. There is a way to do that and still amalgamate the experience we have on the board," he said.

Brown spokeswoman Traci Hughes said that "no final decisions have been made," on appointments "and that includes the transportation committee." She said an announcement is expected Tuesday.

Benjamin said he has discussed the dilemma of voting on a new general manager with board members and job candidates, and the plan is to move forward. "You proceed with the people who are currently board members," he said.

Members say it may not be easy to find replacements.

"This is a very difficult board, just by nature of the multiple jurisdictions across state lines," said Linton, who has been involved in transportation policy at the local, state, and national level, and grew familiar with several different structures as administrator of the Federal Transit Administration from 1993 to 1999.

Indeed, the federal government has not appointed all four of its members as specified in a law passed by Congress two years ago. The law mandates that the General Services Administration appoint two voting directors and two non-voting directors representing the federal government. So far only the two voting directors have been named.

"They need someone willing to be heavily scrutinized, work for free, not have a conflict of interest, and have a schedule to devote two days of your week to this," McKay said.

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