Public transportation advocates and critics are watching the CATS board closely as it mulls a possible shake up of the bus agency’s management staff.
The Capital Area Transit System board of directors is meeting weekly to discuss a consultant’s recommendation to replace CATS’ current managers with contracted employees from a transit management firm. The CATS board is also still conducting an annual evaluation of Brian Marshall, its chief executive officer since 2009.
The CATS board took no action at its first meeting to discuss the consulting firm’s report and some members questioned the merits of the report’s findings.
Adam Knapp, Baton Rouge Area Chamber president, said BRAC has been disappointed that CATS management hasn’t offered a clear implementation plan that shows the public how it will deliver the service goals it promised in a 2012 tax election.
“At the core of all these discussions about contract or outsourced management, that’s the measurement stick we would use,” Knapp said.
He said BRAC, which was active in promoting the CATS tax early last year, has not taken a position on CATS management changes. However, he said, contracted management offers some benefits.
“In a contracted management arrangement, you can set clear performance goals and spell out desired outcomes in a certain timeline,” Knapp said. “We could know by a certain time that there’s going to be an implementation plan.”
He also said going with a firm gives CATS the advantage of setting goals for a whole team, rather than just an individual.
R.J. Goebel, planning director and interim executive director for the Capital Region Planning Commission, cautioned that contracted management can sometimes lead to political micromanagement. He noted CATS could opt to contract out certain functions of management rather than all of management.
Goebel said whatever the CATS board does, he hopes the decision is thoroughly vetted.
“The board shouldn’t say let’s study this and in two weeks make a decision,” he said. “They have a lot of information that pours in. I think there are probably some opportunities that should be explored.”
Woody Jenkins, who is president of the parish Republican Party and who led a group that opposed the CATS tax last year, said the agency ideally should be fully privatized, but “short of that, contracted management is a possibility.”
Jenkins said CATS management has outlined only goals, but no plan.
“Obviously the management there is not capable of achieving its goals and they don’t have a plan,” he said.
Jenkins said he hopes the board will seek a request for proposals from firms interested in managing the bus system and determine what their options and costs would be.
Mayor-President Kip Holden, who supported the tax, declined comment via his aide Scott Dyer.
But some Metro Council members said they are watching the board’s decision closely.
Councilwoman C. Denise Marcelle said she opposes contracted management because it is going to cost more than direct hires.
“If you’re going to spend much more money on administration, you’re certainly going to take it away from operations, and I’d prefer to see money spent on the streets in terms of routes,” Marcelle said.
Marcelle said she also believes in the CATS administration and wants the current managers to have a chance to show what they can do now that they’re properly financed.
“I believe they have shown they can do a lot with a little,” she said.
Councilman John Delgado said no decision can be made until it’s clear how much more a management firm would charge.
But he said loyalty toward the staff should come second to ensuring that the agency is equipped to best deliver on its goals.
“Their considerations need to be loyalty to the city as a whole and to taxpayers first and foremost and loyalty to the people that use the system,” Delgado said.
At a meeting last week, some members of the CATS board expressed frustration at outside agencies and individuals they said were trying to influence their votes.
Board member Isaiah Marshall, no relation to Brian Marshall, said he was “amazed” by all the people who were coming forward to weigh in on the new system.
“The ones putting the most pressure are most likely the ones who have never rode this system and in most instances will never ride this system, but want to have the most influence in what this system will look like,” Isaiah Marshall said.
“I have a problem with that. We need to think about the people who ride this system and will ride this system in the future.”
Board member Jared Loftus responded that more people care now because people are paying into the system via the property tax for the first time.
Knapp said it’s not unfair of the public to expect more from CATS now that the tax has passed.
“The pressure being heightened has a lot to do with the big responsibility that’s on their shoulders,” Knapp said. “It’s an important question of public accountability. But all of our goals are aligned. We want them to succeed. We want a great transit system.”