Members of Metro’s governing board, who have disagreed for months over how best to reform the beleaguered transit agency, agreed Thursday to seek a restructuring specialist to overhaul its management and workplace culture, according to three people familiar with the decision.
Meanwhile, in another big development for a subway system long plagued by operational woes, Metro’s chief safety officer resigned after board members publicly lambasted the agency’s top managers, angrily asking why no high-ranking officials had lost their jobs over last month’s subway derailment while two lower-level workers had been forced to quit.
James Dougherty, who joined Metro as head of its safety department in 2010, is the first senior official to leave the agency in the aftermath of the Aug. 6 derailment, which forced the day-long closing of two downtown Washington Metro stations and large parts of three subway lines and left thousands of commuters stranded.
Earlier Thursday during a closed-door meeting, board members, who have been at odds over what skills to seek in the agency’s next general manager, reached a major decision on what to do while their search for a new chief executive drags on.
They will immediately begin looking for a firm or an individual expert — possibly to be hired within the next two months — to advise the board and the agency’s top managers on reorganizing Metro’s finances and operations, according to three senior Metro officials familiar with the move. They spoke on the condition of anonymity because the decision was confidential.
After a tumultuous eight months for Metro, marked by financial struggles and calamitous operational failures — including a Jan. 12 incident in which smoke filled a subway tunnel and sickened scores of riders, one of whom died — Thursday’s surprise action perhaps signaled a new assertiveness by the Metro board.
The soliciting of a restructuring expert will occur independently of the search for a general manager to replace Richard Sarles, the former chief executive who retired in January. That process has gone on for nearly a year and revealed sharp divisions on the board.
Board members from Maryland and the District — more so than Virginia representatives — have been pushing for a financial expert to overhaul Metro.
Although the board agreed to have the interim general manager, Jack Requa, start looking for a restructuring specialist, there is no formal agreement on actually hiring one. A majority of board members support hiring such an expert, but Virginia representatives could use their veto power to block the move if they wished.
“No agreement has been reached as yet,” said Mortimer L. Downey, the board’s chairman.
At an unusually heated public meeting of the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority board’s safety committee Thursday, Dougherty was among a trio of high-level managers grilled at length about the derailment. The officials’ technical explanations for why a track defect that led to the derailment was disregarded a month earlier, their mea culpas at the meeting and their promises to do better seemed to satisfy no one on the committee.
Dougherty told the committee that his department is responsible for broad, overarching safety policies within the agency and does not focus specifically on each of Metro’s hundreds of day-to-day operational activities, such as track inspections.
That prompted committee member Leif Dormsjo to call Dougherty’s department “a paper tiger,” saying: “It seems to me, by your own testimony today, you’ve got no information about what goes on at WMATA operationally. . . . What’s the point of having a safety department if you’re not deeply embedded in the organization’s operations?”
Hours later, Metro announced Dougherty’s departure.
Dougherty was recruited to Metro by Sarles, who announced his planned retirement last September and left the agency in January. At the time Dougherty was hired, the agency was struggling to revamp its safety operations after a 2009 crash involving two Red Line trains, which killed nine people.
After the fatal Jan. 12 smoke incident — and after a cascade of other operational and safety breakdowns in the rail system — board members reacted angrily to the Aug. 6 derailment, which occurred between the Smithsonian and Federal Triangle stations shortly after Metro’s 5 a.m. opening.
Although the train was not carrying passengers and no one was injured, the incident snarled a huge stretch of the rail system for hours, infuriating riders.
A track inspector, who overlooked the track defect in early July, and one of his supervisors resigned shortly after the derailment, Metro said.
“Rank-and-file employees are disciplined when there are safety lapses,” board member Corbett Price said at the meeting, addressing Dougherty, Requa and Metro’s No. 2 official, Deputy General Manager Rob Troup.
“But yet management gets a pass. We cannot continue to allow this behavior to go on. . . . I think we need fundamental change,” Price said.
Price, who was appointed to the board this year as a representative of the District, told Dougherty: “I have absolutely no confidence in the safety department.”
Dormsjo, who is the District’s transportation director, also publicly excoriated the three officials. Asked after the meeting whether any should be forced out, he replied, “There have got to be some consequences” for upper management.
By day’s end, one top manager was out. “Today I have accepted the resignation of Chief Safety Officer James Dougherty,” Requa said in a statement released early in the evening.
Dougherty has more than 25 years of experience in transit safety. Previously, he was the chief safety officer and director of safety, security and enforcement for the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency. From 2004 to 2009, he was the general manager of safety and security at the Charlotte Area Transit System.
In October 2009, he received the National Safety Council’s Distinguished Service to Safety Award. The award is the highest safety honor given to an individual safety professional.
In 2014, Dougherty was paid more than $192,000.
In a notice to employees Thursday, Requa said that Deputy Chief Safety Officer Louis Brown will replace Dougherty during the search for a permanent successor.
“I think at the end of the day, the management team is responsible for the service we put out there,” said Dormsjo, who, like Price, was appointed to the board by D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) after she took office in January. “So we’re going to have a conversation with the rest of the board and see what the consequences are.”
When reporters later asked Troup whether he should lose his job, he did not answer directly. Requa, standing beside him, interjected, saying: “That’s my decision to make. We’re reviewing all of the activities related to this incident. And if there are additional personnel actions that need to be taken, we’ll be taking them.”
The restructuring expert being sought by the board would probably stay in place for a year to 18 months. The decision to seek such a specialist marked a partial victory for board members from the District and Maryland. Since spring, they have been pushing for selecting a turnaround expert as the next general manager. Virginia board members want a traditional transit executive with operational experience.
One senior Metro official portrayed Thursday’s action — pursuing a restructuring adviser while continuing a separate search for a general manager — as a compromise.
“We’ve made a major step where it’s not either-or, it’s both-and,” the official said.
Mary Pat Flaherty and Lori Aratani contributed to this report.