Metro plans to offer its general manager job to a candidate who initially fell short in the selection process but now is in line for the position because the agency’s No. 1 choice backed out, D.C. Council member Jack Evans said Tuesday.
Several people familiar with the situation identified the new front-runner for Metro’s top management job as Paul J. Wiedefeld, who was a Maryland transportation official for 11 years, mostly under two Democratic governors.
In July, seven months after Gov. Larry Hogan (R) took office, Wiedefeld, 60, was fired as chief executive of Baltimore-Washington International Marshall Airport.
Addressing fellow D.C. council members at a Tuesday breakfast meeting, hours after corporate financial expert Neal S. Cohen declined to become Metro’s chief executive, Evans said the second of two finalists for the job “is still interested” in the position and would be asked to decide Wednesday whether to accept it.
Evans (D-Ward 2), who represents the District on Metro’s governing board and is a member of the executive search committee, did not mention the applicant’s name. But two Washington-area transportation officials familiar with the search have identified Wiedefeld as the other finalist. Wiedefeld, who declined to comment on the job last week, did not return a phone message Tuesday seeking a comment on Evans’s remarks.
“Mort Downey and I are going to handle the process,” Evans said at the breakfast, referring to Metro board Chairman Mortimer L. Downey, who also leads the four-member search committee. Evans said he and Downey will “see if we can get the other candidate to sign on,” and then ask the board to finalize the hiring Thursday.
After Metro chose Cohen over Wiedefeld last week and offered him the job, Evans said, Cohen “did his own due diligence and came back to us and said he really wasn’t interested after all, because the job was much bigger than he thought it was.”
In turning down the position, Cohen, 55, also was influenced by the fact that his name had been leaked to reporters during the confidential search process, Evans said.
Evans did not elaborate. But the leak led to news stories about Cohen’s professional background, in the airline industry and other fields, and his multimillion-dollar compensation packages as a corporate chief financial officer.
Cohen, who has no experience with working in the public sector, was taken aback by the leak and by the intense media scrutiny involved in running the nation’s second-busiest subway system, according to several officials.
Wiedefeld is more accustomed to public attention.
Keith Meurlin, president of the nonprofit organization Washington Airports Task Force, which works to promote Washington Dulles International and Reagan National airports, called Wiedefeld “extraordinarily competent” and “absolutely the perfect guy for the job of rebuilding the credibility” of the beleaguered transit agency.
“They’ve got so many issues down there,” Meurlin said, referring to Metro’s raft of operational and safety problems and severe financial woes. “Metro is vital to this region, and they need someone with Paul’s character.”
Virginia Transportation Secretary Aubrey Layne said Tuesday that he approved of Cohen and Wiedefeld. Maryland Transportation Secretary Pete K. Rahn, who voiced support for Cohen last week, was out of town and not available to comment on Tuesday’s developments, his spokeswoman said.
Wiedefeld was a vice president of the huge construction and engineering firm Parsons Brinckerhoff in 2002, when he was named chief executive of BWI in a somewhat controversial appointment by then-Gov. Parris Glendening (D). At the time, Parsons Brinckerhoff was the lead contractor in a $1.8-billion expansion project at BWI. Wiedefeld also had no direct experience in airport management.
However, he was widely credited with successfully overseeing the project, which included construction of a 26-gate Southwest Airlines terminal, parking garages and a new rental car facility. In 2005, two years into the administration of then-Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R), Wiedefeld returned to Parsons Brinckerhoff, where he led the company’s aviation consulting practice.
In 2007, then-Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) appointed him director of the Maryland Transit Administration, which manages MARC commuter trains as well as light rail and other transit systems in the Baltimore-Washington region.
Two years later, Wiedefeld left the MTA and began his second stint as BWI’s top manager, with an annual salary of about $294,000. Former Metro general manager Richard Sarles, who retired in January, was paid $366,000 a year.
When Hogan last summer hired a new BWI chief executive, Ricky D. Smith Sr., who had been director of Cleveland’s Hopkins International Airport, the governor’s office said it was confident that Smith would “build upon the growth BWI has experienced in the past several years under the leadership of Paul Wiedefeld.”
“You do your best, and sometimes governors ... want to make a change,” Wiedefeld told the Baltimore Sun at the time.
Last year, he was one of three finalists for the job of managing Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, the nation’s busiest airport. The job went to an in-house candidate, Miguel Southwell, who had been the airport’s interim general manager.
Last week, after Metro’s executive committee winnowed the field of prospective general managers to two finalists, Evans said, members submitted the names to the full board, which spent an entire day interviewing both candidates.
“And we met afterward and came to a consensus around one of the candidates,” he said, referring to Cohen. “So up until then, the process worked pretty well.”
Last Wednesday, however, Cohen’s name was leaked.
“Unfortunately, the way Metro works, you have board members, and the board members generally have to go back to their representative jurisdictions and share with whoever they share the information,” Evans told council members Tuesday. “And that’s where the process always goes off the tracks. Because when they do that, inevitably the names get out.”
A year ago, after Sarles announced his plan to retire, the board was focused on hiring a traditional transit executive grounded in the day-to-day operation of a transportation agency. But in January, when Hogan and D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) took office, they made it clear that they wanted the next general manager to have a proven track record in financial management, given Metro’s array of money problems.
Considering Metro’s chronic operational and safety shortcomings, however, Virginia officials continued to call for a leader with expertise in the transportation field and a record of instilling a strong organizational safety culture.
In February, when the board was close to choosing a new chief executive from among three finalists who were all conventional transit managers, the candidates withdrew after potentially identifying details about them were leaked to a reporter, despite Metro’s efforts to keep such information confidential during the selection process.
Board members said the candidates were top transit officials elsewhere. If it became public that such an official applied for the Metro job and was turned down, that official’s current position could be greatly undermined, members said.
At the council breakfast Tuesday, Evans also took issue with sharp criticism, even ridicule, leveled at the Metro board Monday after the discussions with Cohen collapsed. For example, D.C. Council member Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3), chairwoman of the council’s transportation committee, likened Metro board members to “Keystone Kops.”
“We don’t appreciate that, because the board did its job,” Evans said.
“You may not like it,” Cheh replied, “but that was my comment, and I stick with it.”