Among the many portentous utterances in the 2007 film No Country for Old Men, the most trenchant comes from Sheriff Ed Tom Bell. As portrayed by the iconic actor Tommy Lee Jones, Bell is a veteran Texas lawman of wry laconicism who, over the course of the film, comes to feel himself “overmatched” by the vagaries of fate, the foibles of human nature and the inherence of evil in the world. Early in the going, surveying the gruesome scene of the crime that is the story’s jumping-off point, Bell’s deputy asks a rhetorical question.
“It’s a mess, ain’t it, Sheriff?”
The sheriff’s murmured reply to this is directed not to the deputy, but toward the blank horizon at which he seems to glimpse the carnage and calamity to come.
“If it ain’t, it’ll do till the mess gets here.”
Unfortunately, that fairly well sums up the current situation with the Birmingham-Jefferson Transit Authority, which operates the Metro Area Express (MAX) bus system. For the BJCTA — or, more correctly, those who rely on MAX for their transportation needs, and the local municipalities that subscribe to its bus and paratransit services — if the mess ain’t here already, it is on its way, as inexorably as darkness falls upon daylight.
Unless something happens to head it off — and we’re talking something radically drastic, like the appointees of a public board in Birmingham acting collectively in the interest of the public — this particular mess is going to result in, if not literal carnage, then as great a calamity as could befall an agency that has been beleaguered for virtually its entire history. Unless the BJCTA board suddenly wises up and does the right thing, there will be no one left to pick up the pieces except the board itself — including those members whose willful and, apparently, malicious dereliction of their duty caused the mess in the first place.
At issue is the ability of MAX executive director Ann August to do her job without undue — and perhaps illegal — interference from the board. As previous directors have found, that is a high-wire act, and one that has become increasingly difficult for August in recent weeks.
Before getting into the particulars, a bit of history is in order. Since arriving in Birmingham in January of 2013, August has led what has been essentially a recreation of the bus system, maximizing the system’s perennially meager resources to make a truly regional mass transit system seem like something more than a pipe dream among advocates not terminally disappointed by the BJCTA’s history as a locus of political chicanery and outright graft. I don’t know how many times I have heard people — bus riders, transit advocates, elected officials — describe August with the same phrase: A breath of fresh air.
In this, August to all appearances enjoyed at least the tacit support of the BJCTA board. That began to change last summer, when board chair Joyce Brooks announced that she would not seek reappointment to her seat. A board committee charged with nominating new members of the executive committee failed to produce a slate, and ultimately Brooks was replaced by longtime board member Johnnye Lassiter, who represents Bessemer.
Lassiter was joined on the executive committee by vice chair Patricia Bozeman Henderson, and secretary/treasurer Bacarra Mauldin, both of whom represent Birmingham on the board. Soon afterward, Deborah Walker, a longtime associate of Birmingham Mayor William Bell, was given a $10,000-per-month contract to serve as the board’s attorney — a position she previously had held for several years, ending in 2005.
Since that time, Lassiter and Walker have “repeatedly overstepped” their respective bounds of authority, including performing executive functions and giving directives to MAX staff. That’s according to board member Adam Snyder, who says the actions of Lassiter and Walker have become “a disturbing trend” that threatens the already tenuous credibility of the BJCTA.
“We have a board member and a contract employee going rogue,” Snyder says. “They are operating independently of either the board or Ms. August, and that is beginning to wreak havoc with our relationships throughout the community, and with the operation of the system.”
Snyder’s comments came on Dec. 19, following a special called meeting of the BJCTA board to deal with potential disruption of MAX service to Homewood (I wrote about that situation in this space two weeks ago). Lassiter had complained that the board was not made aware of Homewood’s intention to cut funding for MAX in its 2015 budget — an assertion that August disputed. Meanwhile, Snyder told me in a subsequent conversation, Lassiter had herself withheld information from the board regarding pending changes in the BJCTA’s use of off-duty Birmingham police officers to provide security services at the MAX Central Station downtown.
Snyder expressed his concerns over the withholding of information in a Christmas Eve email to his fellow board members. In a response, BJCTA vice chair Henderson asked Snyder to call Lassiter to discuss his concerns, and cautioned him against making public any information about the security contract.
Do not have our transit business spreaded [sic] out over the Internet, Henderson wrote. This information can be forwarded to others (newspaper or tv).
We must represent Birmingham in a more respectable manner.
Reaching Henderson by telephone on Monday, I asked her why a member of a public board would want to keep information from the public. She seemed unaware that communications between BJCTA board members are, by definition, public information, and wanted to know how I had come to be in possession of her email to Snyder.
“The public is not entitled to that information,” Henderson told me. “I sent that email only to the members of the board, so you’re taking personal information and making it public. You are not supposed to have that.”
For her part, Lassiter rejects the idea that she is exceeding her authority by, in essence, taking over executive functions from August, telling me on Monday that, “We can’t help how anybody feels about that. We have been moving in a positive vein, and I think that as a board, we’re just trying to make sure we are all informed and working together. That’s the key to success in whatever we do.”
I also spoke to August on Monday. She acknowledged that her frustration with the board has grown “over the past several months,” and said that the process by which she shares information with board members has changed at Lassiter’s direction, with communications from August going solely to Lassiter, to be forwarded to the full board at the discretion of the chair.
“Of course that concerns me” as executive director, August said. “In terms of how involved board members should be in operations, that’s something that the powers-that-be need to look at going forward.”
Shortly after my conversation with her, Lassiter called a special meeting of the board for next Monday, Jan. 5. Ostensibly, the agenda will include some discussion of moving forward in negotiations with Homewood, as well as the security contract that expires on Feb. 5. But Snyder fears that the upshot will be either a decision by August to resign her position, or a decision by the board to terminate her — an outcome that he says will be “disastrous” for the system.
“Quite simply, there is no salvaging transit if we lose Ann,” Snyder declares. “This meeting is probably a do-or-die situation, and if it comes to a vote on keeping her, I don’t think we have the votes to do it.”
In other words, the mess — or something that most certainly will do until it gets here — arrives on Jan. 5.