Citizens group reconvenes on CATS, questions contract procedure

A local citizens group that had a hand in developing and promoting the tax plan to expand and improve parish bus service two years ago has reconvened to hold the CATS board accountable amid a recent controversy surrounding a $1.5 million transit management contract.

The group, called the Baton Rouge Transit Coalition, is made up of residents, nonprofit groups and business leaders including representatives from the Baton Rouge Area Chamber, the Center for Planning Excellence, Our Lady of the Lake College and AARP.

The coalition initially formed in 2011 to advance the recommendations of Mayor-President Kip Holden’s Blue Ribbon Commission — a similar citizens group that studied parish transit problems and recommended a dedicated tax for the Capital Area Transit System.

A 10.6-mill property tax was passed in Baton Rouge and Baker in April 2012, in response to CATS’ promise to use the money to dramatically improve the bare bones bus service.

“The immediate goal of the Coalition is to help CATS build community support, which is just as essential today as it was last year,” the group stated in a news release issued Friday afternoon.

The coalition group was careful not to criticize CATS, but suggested that its members had concerns about the way the CATS board is handling the award of a $1.5 million, 18-month transit management contract.

The process of evaluating firms competing for the contract was criticized this week by some CATS board members, Metro Council members and Baton Rouge residents.

The perception among the critics was that the scales had been tipped in favor of a local group, the SJB Group, over three other firms with more transit management experience.

The board is expected to take a final vote Tuesday on whether to follow the recommendation to award the management contract to the SJB Group.

In its news release, the coalition group said it has sent CATS a list of questions and issues “that should be clarified prior to making a project management contract award.”

The news release applauded the credentials of all four applicants, but said, “Whichever is the final choice, the selection process and scoring method should be clearly understood by the entire Baton Rouge community.”

In an phone interview Friday afternoon, coalition member David Aguillard, executive director of Catholic Charities said the coalition is there to “offer a helping hand and support where ever possible.”

He said the coalition has “no preference on who gets the transit management contract,” but added that the group hopes the “CATS Board will clarify the process prior to making the contract award.”

The coalition group’s comments come a day after some Metro Council members said they would support removing the full CATS board and replacing them with new people.

CATS Board President Isaiah Marshall refused to answer The Advocate’s questions for the third day in a row on Friday, after releasing an emailed statement on Wednesday stressing how transparent the agency has been for the past six months.

Marshall said on Friday that he would provide a statement on Tuesday at the CATS board meeting.

But in an interview that appeared in the Baton Rouge Business Report’s Daily Report Friday, Marshall said he was unfazed by the criticism, and would fight any attempts to remove him from the board.

He also said he will not reconsider the committee’s recommendation to award SJB Group the contract.

Other CATS board members previously asked to allow the full board to consider the top two highest scoring firms in light of the questions about selection committee’s scoring. But Marshall objected.

“There was nothing illegal or wrongly done with the process,” Marshall told the Business Report.

The Coalition members are: the AARP, BRAC, Beverly LeBeau, Carmen Weisner, Felder and Associates, Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Baton Rouge, Center for Planning Excellence, Cordell Haymon, George Bell, Groupe Construction, Kevin Knobloch, Mid City Redevelopment Authority, Our Lady of the Lake College, Patrick Mascarella, TH Montano Enterprises, The Advocacy Center, The Arc Baton Rouge and Visit Baton Rouge.