The nominating committee hasn’t even met, but Paul Smedberg has already emerged as the front-runner to succeed Jack Evans as chair of the Metro board, officials said Friday.
Smedberg, a former Alexandria City Council member with transportation experience, is seen as a broadly acceptable candidate who won’t seek the limelight and can help unify the jurisdictions served by Metro after Evans’s occasionally stormy tenure over the past 3½ years.
“Smedberg is a good choice,” said a Metro board member who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the matter is politically sensitive. “After three years of Jack, I think it’s a good time for the board to step back and let [General Manager Paul J.] Wiedefeld be the face of Metro.”
In another sign of significant changes to come on the Metro board, Maryland Transportation Secretary Pete K. Rahn said he will join the panel as a principal or voting member on July 1.
It’s unusual for such a high-ranking official from Maryland or Virginia to serve on the board, and the decision apparently signals a desire in Annapolis to exert more influence over the transit agency. A recently passed Maryland law requires that the transportation secretary either serve on the board or appoint a subordinate to do so.
Evans announced Thursday that he would not seek reelection as chair after his term expires June 30, though he will remain on the board. He did so as the board’s ethics committee closed a probe into whether Evans improperly used his position as chair to seek business for his private legal and consulting work.
The committee said it would not make the results of the investigation public, a decision that drew criticism Friday from two Metro board members who are not on the ethics panel.
“I find the action or inaction taken by the ethics committee unsatisfactory and a breach of our obligation to be transparent for a public body,” said Michael Goldman, who represents Maryland.
The committee should “state the charges brought against Chairman Evans; the conclusions and recommendation of the investigation of the high-priced attorney hired to do the investigation; and an explanation of the decision to close the investigation,” Goldman said.
Said board member Christian Dorsey, who represents Virginia: “We don’t necessarily have to release full findings. That’s up to the ethics committee to decide. But the idea that we are completely silent just doesn’t sit entirely well with me.”
Goldman and Dorsey’s statements added to public pressure on the board to go further than it has in dealing with Evans, who also faces a federal investigation related to his work as a Democratic D.C. Council member representing Ward 2. Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) said Thursday that Evans is “so ethically compromised that he should resign from the board altogether.”
A four-member nominating committee was appointed to recommend Evans’s successor, who would take office July 1. Smedberg is one of the members of the nominating committee, but he is expected to recuse himself when he becomes a candidate for the position.
The board chair is elected by the panel’s eight principal members and has broad powers including setting the agenda for board meetings and running them, calling special meetings and serving as the liaison with the general manager.
The Metro board sets policy and provides oversight for the transit agency and approves its budget. It is dominated by the principal voting members — two apiece from the District, Virginia, Maryland and the federal government. It also includes eight alternates with limited responsibilities, who also are divided evenly among the three jurisdictions and the federal government.
Smedberg, who declined to comment, is the early favorite to be chairman partly through process of elimination, according to four officials familiar with the matter, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because it is politically sensitive.
The job won’t go to someone from the District because Evans said it is time to rotate the position to a different jurisdiction. It won’t go to the federal government because the three jurisdictions contribute more financially to Metro and contend that one of them should usually have the chairmanship.
That leaves Virginia and Maryland. Rahn said he doesn’t have time for the job, and officials said the other Maryland board member, Goldman, is not seeking it.
Dorsey is seen as a potentially strong candidate for chairman, but he is busy with his main job as chair of the Arlington County Board. Asked whether he was interested, Dorsey said, “I will consider it if asked but don’t intend to lobby for it.”
That leaves Smedberg, who has served as chairman of both the Virginia Railway Express operations board and the Northern Virginia Transportation Commission. He served five terms as an Alexandria council member before losing in the Democratic primary in June. That loss occurred partly because some constituents accused him of misleading them over a decision at the time, since reversed, to cancel construction of a second entrance to a planned Metro station.
Metro officials described Smedberg as a conciliatory figure and said that would be welcome at this time.
Evans tangled repeatedly with Hogan and other officials in Maryland, Virginia and Congress. Those battles flared partly because of Evans’s uncompromising advocacy of the District’s interests and partly because he repeatedly shamed others for what he saw as insufficient support for Metro’s financial needs.
“My sense is that Paul Smedberg has the pole position to become chairman,” a Metro official said. “I think he wants to lower the temperature on the board. He’s just the guy to do that. He possesses the experience of a politician, which is important for the chair to have, even if he doesn’t hold office now.”
Leaders of regional organizations that support Metro said Smedberg would be a good choice, and they hoped that he would back what Wiedefeld says are efforts to improve Metro management.
“Virginia has a record of good governance. I would expect him to do a good job,” said former D.C. mayor Anthony A. Williams, now chief executive of the Federal City Council.
“The best way to achieve good outcomes are to provide air support and cover for Paul [Wiedefeld] to continue and strengthen his whole initiative on oversight and better management,” Williams said.
Stewart Schwartz, executive director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth, said Smedberg would be an “excellent” choice because of “his experience as an elected official, his own diplomatic skills and ability to work really well with his fellow elected officials.”
But Schwartz described Rahn’s arrival on the board as “worrisome” because Schwartz views him as too supportive of building roads, such as by wanting to widen the Capital Beltway and Interstate 270.
“I think we need [Metro] board members who champion transit as the highest priority for our region,” Schwartz said.
Patricia Sullivan contributed to this report.