Metro board in contract talks with general manager pick

By Ann Scott Tyson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 19, 2011; 8:43 PM

Metro is negotiating a contract with its top choice to become the new permanent general manager of the transit authority. Officials hope to announce the appointment at a board of directors meeting Jan. 27, board members said Wednesday.

One of the three candidates is Interim General Manager Richard Sarles, the former chief of New Jersey Transit.

Board members declined to name the front-runner or the other candidates. The board reached a consensus after holding final interviews on Saturday.

"The board has in mind who the next general manager will be, and we have begun to talk about a contract with that person," said board member Jeff McKay, who is also a Fairfax County supervisor. "All three people interviewed did a good job."

McKay said that if negotiations with the front-runner collapse, the board might have to turn to the second or third choice. The board would still need to conduct a final vote.

"The process is still underway," said William D. Euille, a Metro board member from Alexandria. "If we can make an announcement next Thursday, hopefully that will be the case."

Metro spokeswoman Lisa Farbstein said that "interviews have been completed and the board is in final discussion on the selection."

Sarles emerged as a contender after maintaining for months that he was not seeking the permanent position. Several board members have spoken glowingly of Sarles and his performance during his 10-month tenure as Metro wrestles with safety issues and budget deficits.

Sarles joined the agency in late March at a salary of $25,000 a month. He retired from New Jersey Transit in January 2010 and has more than 40 years of transit experience. He has also worked for Amtrak and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. Sarles holds a bachelor's degree in engineering from the Cooper Union and an MBA from Rutgers University.

Peter Benjamin, chairman of Metro's board of directors, headed the search committee and is leading the contract negotiations with the help of Metro staff, McKay said.

"We are in the process, and the process is not completed," Benjamin said, explaining that board members had agreed during Saturday's deliberations to limit their comments on the general-manager search.

The uncertainty over who will run Metro has persisted since John B. Catoe Jr. abruptly announced his resignation a year ago and extends to key staff positions and the board, which is undergoing a major turnover.

Sarles quickly filled several vacancies in Metro's safety department, including hiring James Dougherty as the new chief of safety in the spring. Sarles was also instrumental in retaining Jack Requa to be head of Metro's bus operations, according to Benjamin.

However, Sarles noted in an interview last week, some top jobs remain vacant, including deputy general manager for rail.

"One of the drawbacks of having an interim general manager is the inability to fill a position like that and attract candidates, because they don't know who their boss is," Sarles said. "That is a very key position, so when a permanent general manager is appointed, that position should be filled as quickly as possible."

On Metro's board of directors, eight of the 14 members are being replaced; four have already left.

Fairfax Supervisor Catherine Hudgins, who joined the board in 2004, is expected to be elected as the new board chairman Jan. 27, under a long-standing practice of rotating the chairmanship between the jurisdictions each year. However, the board has come under pressure from the leaders of Virginia, Maryland and the District to appoint a regional chair with a longer term of office.

"I have no reason to believe Cathy won't be appointed as the chair on the 27th," McKay said. Metro's governing compact requires that a board chair be named annually, he said.

But the board plans to discuss recommendations on Metro's governance issued in two recent critical reports and endorsed in part by the region's three transportation secretaries, McKay said.

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