Four vacancies draw high-profile applicants
The months of drama surrounding the Capital Area Transit System has not deterred people from applying to serve on its board.
Four CATS board vacancies have drawn 26 candidates so far — some high profile — including lawyers, educators, engineers, a board member for the Baton Rouge Area Foundation, the first assistant secretary of state and the former president of the Public Affairs Research Council of Louisiana, a nonprofit dedicated to transparency in government.
CATS board members are appointed by the Metro Council, and two of the four appointments will be filled at the Oct. 9 meeting. The other two vacancies will be filled Nov. 13 and Nov. 26 respectively.
“It’s a call to action,” said Marston Fowler, CATS board president. “People know it’s important; we need the best people we can find.”
Metro Councilman Ryan Heck, who resigned from the CATS board in September, said he is pleased by the quality of the candidates.
Heck resigned after nine months, saying he felt confident new guidelines implemented by the Metro Council would lead to more-qualified board members to move the agency forward.
“I’ve seen several really qualified individuals apply,” Heck said. “I’m really pleased that some of the stake holders are putting up some of their own.”
Jim Brandt, PAR president from 1999 to 2010, said his expertise in government best practices, financial management and transparency could benefit CATS.
“My background in advocacy for transparency in government … for open meetings and public records access, and having no secrets would be an advantage to the CATS board as it goes forward,” he said. “It’s paramount that the CATS board have the credibility, confidence and stability going forward, given the fact that there has been such a difficult period the past year or so.”
CATS has been under fire in recent months over a series of scandals, including perceived bias in a process to award a large management contract, a board member who allegedly stole money to pay his bills, and missing fare box revenue.
The controversies have overshadowed the mission of the bus agency to deliver faster and expanded bus service to riders by the end of March.
Kyle Ardoin, the first assistant secretary of state, said he has long believed public transportation is important to a city’s ability to compete economically. He also said he was concerned the CATS controversies were giving the city a bad name.
“I would hate that the city would get a bad rap because of a few bad apples,” Ardoin said.
“Whether I’m chosen or not, we have got to get the right people on there for the right reason and make this system viable for the future.”
In August, the Metro Council created a citizen committee that is screening each of the candidates, although the Metro Council is not bound by the committee’s recommendations.
The committee will look at educational background, management experience and involvement with public transit riders.
Edgar Cage, serving as committee chairman, said the committee is also looking at leadership ability, and expertise and experience working with other community boards or commissions. He said they’d also like the CATS board, eventually, to be representative of the demographics of the areas it serves.
Darius Bonton, a engineering consultant with a background in planning and transportation, said he was attracted to the CATS board because of the direction it’s moving with the dedicated tax and the decision to hire professional contracted support.
He said these moves lay a framework for significant change in public transportation.
“Development is starting to become more infill as opposed to sprawl and we have to figure out a way to accommodate that,” he said. “Public transit is the way to go.”
The Metro Council also said it would give extra consideration to applicants from Baker, in an effort to ensure the city is represented on the board. Both Baker and Baton Rouge are the only areas in the parish paying the CATS 10.6-mill property tax, passed in April 2012.
Seven of the applicants so far are from Baker, and include a former Baker city prosecutor, a member of the parish Democratic Party, a Southern University professor and a retired Zachary police captain who lives in Baker.
One Baker resident who applied is Troy Watson, a Baker School Board member who said she grew up riding the bus in New Orleans and she would represent the riders’ perspective.
“I understand what these people are going through,” Watson said, adding that she first applied in January, “before these seats became a big hot item.”