Metro board prepares for first round of general-manager interviews

An examination of the nation's second largest rail transit system comes at a time when Metro tries to weather an unprecedented season of danger and dismay.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 20, 2010; 11:25 PM

A Metro search committee next week will conduct its first round of formal interviews with candidates to become the agency's next general manager. Board members say they have selected about eight prospects from hundreds of applicants but won't rush to make a final decision.

In fact, the search could last into next year, they said, stressing that their priority is to identify the best possible person for the job rather than rush to meet an arbitrary deadline.

A key factor in that approach is what members describe as an emerging consensus that interim General Manager Richard Sarles has stabilized the transit agency. Several vacancies in the agency's executive ranks added urgency to the initial search to replace John B. Catoe Jr., who left the troubled transit agency in April.

"We want to make sure we really do find the right person for this job and we do a really exhaustive search," said Peter Benjamin, chairman of the board of directors and a member of the board's four-person search committee.

"One of the reasons we are able to do this is that Rich Sarles is really doing an excellent job as interim general manager, so that . . . gives us breathing room to really do this right," said Benjamin, a Maryland member of the board.

Alternate member Jeff C. McKay of Fairfax County said that he believes Sarles is committed to fixing problems at Metro until a replacement is appointed. "I am not in a hurry, because I know Rich is doing a good job and he will stay, doing a good job, as long as we need him to," McKay said.

Metro spokeswoman Lisa Farbstein said Sarles will continue in his current interim role while the board conducts the search "as expeditiously as possible."

"Mr. Sarles is very focused on being the general manager, and any talk of possibly extending him or of him being asked to stay on permanently are premature. His total focus now is on Metro," she said.

The board had hoped to complete the search by the end of the year. Although the need to do that is less urgent now, Benjamin said he still hopes to finalize the search by then. It is possible, but unlikely, that the interviews could identify an ideal candidate whom the board would approve quickly, he added.

Sarles, who has said he is not interested in the permanent job, has a 12-month contract that ends next spring. He retired earlier this year as chief of New Jersey Transit.

He has moved quickly to establish a six-month safety plan for Metro, hiring several new safety officers and conducting an unprecedented safety survey of Metro's 10,000 employees. He won unusual praise from the head of the National Transportation Safety Board last month for acting upon NTSB recommendations, after a scathing report on the deficiencies that led to the June 2009 Red Line crash.

Sarles has also initiated a monthly performance "score card" for Metro and hired a consultant to conduct an independent assessment of escalator and elevator maintenance problems, a source of frequent rider complaints.

"He's bold," McKay said. "He has gotten people's attention."

The candidates being interviewed by the search committee are managers from inside as well as outside the transit industry and from the private and public sector, according to board members. The goal, Benjamin said, is for the committee to narrow the group to a smaller number of candidates who will be interviewed by the full board.

Board members have refused to provide additional details about the candidate pool that could identify individual applicants, saying it is important to protect their confidentiality given their current positions.

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