Metro board considers its future and how agency should be run

Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 18, 2011

A committee of Metro's board of directors began redefining how it governs the transit agency Thursday as one of the board's last veteran members announced his unexpected departure.

The first meeting of the agency's new governance committee Thursday laid out an ambitious plan for modernizing the board's leadership and raising its performance through a series of tasks to be completed by May. The plan will go to the full board for approval Feb. 24.

The committee was created in response to two major reports last year that said Metro's governance structure was outdated, lacked accountability and contributed to safety problems and a decline in public confidence in the system.

"This is an opportunity to start with a clean slate . . . in terms of moving this agency forward," said Marcel Acosta, a federal representative on the board.

Meanwhile, one of the biggest turnovers in board history continued as Peter Benjamin, a nearly 25-year veteran of Metro, said he had been asked Feb. 11 to step down by Maryland Transportation Secretary Beverley K. Swaim-Staley as the administration of Gov. Martin O'Malley creates a new team for his second term. O'Malley said Thursday that he will nominate former Maryland congressman Michael D. Barnes to replace Benjamin. Barnes will have to be approved by the state Senate.

O'Malley said Barnes "understands Metro's past and has a clear vision of where the organization needs to go in the future regarding the key issues of safety, customer service and the maintenance of the system."

Benjamin announced in the middle of Thursday's committee deliberations that he would be leaving, causing the room to fall silent.

"We are all a little speechless," said committee Chairwoman Mary Hynes of Arlington. Several members thanked Benjamin for his work during what has been a difficult time for Metro, as the agency has faced safety problems, deteriorating infratructure and budget deficits.

Benjamin just completed a one-year term as chairman of the board of directors. He has also worked on Metro's staff, serving as the agency's chief financial officer, director of planning and senior financial adviser.

General Manager Richard Sarles said Benjamin's guidance was one reason that he sought to stay on, after arriving last spring as interim chief. Benjamin led the search committee that selected Sarles as one of the leading candidates for the permanent job.

Six of the Metro board's 14 members have departed since December, and a seventh, Elizabeth Hewlett of Maryland, whose three-year term expired last summer, is eager to leave. Hewlett on Thursday said she believes the Maryland administration is "close" to identifying her replacement. The federal government still needs to appoint two alternative members.

Hewlett and other members have complained that the demanding job is a thankless one; many members receive little or no compensation.

Several new members who lack recent experience on the board, such as Hynes, will be spearheading an effort to reform how Metro functions. The governance committee has said that it agrees with recommendations - contained in reports last year by the Metro Riders' Advisory Council and a joint task force set up by the Greater Washington Board of Trade and Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments - that the board should be a policymaking body.

"In the past . . . the board has lost sight of its overall policy mission and has lost sight of boundaries," said Jeff McKay of Fairfax, who has been on the board since 2008.

A work plan discussed at Thursday's meeting calls for deciding the length of the board chairman's term - currently one year - as well as examining the role of alternate, or non-voting board members, and creating bylaws for the board. Currently "the role of the chair is really not outlined at all," Hynes said.

Other objectives include improving communication with the public and establishing performance goals for the general manager, as well as a code of conduct for board members that would "set high attendance standards" and ensure that they ride the Metro system.

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