Our Views: CATS needs big changes

The Capital Area Transit Authority board acted correctly in voting to scrap a controversial selection process for a lucrative management contract for the agency, which oversees mass transit in Baton Rouge. But the board still has a long way to go in building public confidence in its mission. The agency’s credibility took another hit on Thursday with allegations that CATS board member Montrell McCaleb used $1,484 in bus system funds to pay his TV and phone bills.

CATS officials and their supporters made a lot of promises about accountability when they successfully argued last year for voter passage of 10.6-mill property tax to help fund the bus system’s operations. Although we acknowledge the need for quality public transit, we opposed the tax, concluding that the specially drawn taxing district for the millage seemed inequitable and needlessly divisive.

The narrow design of the taxing district created an impression — perhaps unintentional — that public transit is a special interest rather than a broad community concern. Sadly, the CATS board’s recent decisions have appeared to confirm that insular spirit.

Too often, the board’s decisions seem driven by the agency’s internal politics rather than the needs of taxpayers. That’s no way to grow community support for the important work that CATS is obligated to perform.

After the passage of the transit tax, CATS Chief Executive Officer Brian Marshall resigned amid complaints that he wasn’t moving quickly enough to improve transit service. After interviewing candidates behind closed doors — an obvious dodge on public transparency¬≠ — ¬≠¬≠ the CATS board hired Robert Mirabito, who has no experience in mass transit management, to run the agency on an interim basis. Then, using a selection process that seemed arbitrary and unduly prone to political influence, a CATS committee recommended giving a $1.5 million management contract to a local firm that also has no transit management experience.

That controversial decision prompted a move by some members of the Metro Council to seek the removal of CATS board members. In a letter to the council, Mayor Kip Holden expressed support for “the removal of any CATS board members who are not acting in good faith.”

Bowing to criticism, the CATS board tossed out its selection methods for a management firm. Board President Isaiah Marshall said that the new selection process will be conducted by staff and have no board involvement.

We hope that by weighing in on CATS’ recent problems, the mayor and the council have sent the message that CATS is a community institution, not a private fiefdom.

And although we’re not ready to suggest that the entire CATS board should be replaced, Isaiah Marshall’s continued intransigence involving public concerns doesn’t bode well for his continued leadership of the board. He’s continuing to blame the board’s problems on the media and others, an exercise in evasion that doesn’t advance the interests of mass transit in Baton Rouge.

CATS’ patrons, as well as taxpayers who now have a bigger obligation to fund the transit agency’s operations, deserve better.