On Friday, Oct. 9, five of the nine members of the Birmingham-Jefferson County Transit Authority board assembled at an “emergency” meeting that had been hastily called just before midday. The emergency turned out to be a 5-0 vote to terminate the relationship between the BJCTA and Ann August, its executive director since January 2013 — or, as board chair Patrick Sellers stated it for the record just prior to the vote, the board was voting to “accept [August’s] notice of retirement, and compensate her for the remainder of her contract.”
The board’s action came two days after Weld published a story in which August stated her intention to leave the BJCTA when her contract expired on December 31 of this year. In the story, August acknowledged that an ongoing history of tension with a faction of four board members had contributed to her decision to end her tenure in Birmingham, where she has been widely credited with improving the performance and image of the long-beleaguered bus system, as well as reviving morale among the system’s employees.
“The time has come for me to move on,” August said. That would “allow the board to move the agency in the direction they want it to go.”
As it turned out, the first move in that direction was letting her go immediately. At the October 9 meeting, the four-member faction of Sellers, vice chair Patricia Henderson, secretary-treasurer Bacarra Mauldin, and former chair Johnnye Lassiter was joined by member Frank Topping in the board majority that voted to accept a settlement reached in a 10 a.m. meeting between August and the board’s executive committee.
A news release distributed at the meeting advised that August “has informed [the board] that she will retire on December 31, 2015.” The release hailed August as “a dedicated transit ambassador,” but also said that the board “is supportive of August’s decision.”
There had been less than an hour’s notice between notification of the emergency meeting and its scheduled start time of 11:15, and even when it didn’t begin until about 30 minutes later, only a few people other than the board, August and several BJCTA administrative staff and contractors, were present. When Sellers opened the floor for comments from the public, two people spoke.
“This is very sad,” said Ted Gemberling, who is secretary of the BJCTA’s Transit Citizens Advisory Board (TCAB). “I feel kind of abandoned. Mrs. August has done such a good job, and I just can’t see how her leaving is going to be a benefit to the transit system in any way.”
Similar sentiments were expressed by J.O. Hill. President of both TCAB and the local chapter of the transit employees union, and a 30-year employee of the transit authority, Hill was more pointed in his comments.
“I have worked for 11 executive directors,” Hill told the board. “I can’t see or understand what it takes for a director to stay here. What [August] has accomplished should be known by everybody. She is well known and respected all over the country, but it seems to me that around here, she is not respected. That’s a problem, and if you can’t find the problem at the bottom, then it’s got to be at the top.”
Also among those present at the October 9 meeting was Birmingham City Councilor Kim Rafferty. Rafferty chairs the council’s Transportation and Communications committee, which vets and recommends candidates for openings on the BJCTA board and otherwise serves as the city’s primary point of contact to the transit authority.
After the meeting, Rafferty said there are “several” board members who are “working against the city’s interest and that of the region.” She singled out Henderson and Mauldin, both of whom were appointed by the city council, in 2012 and 2014, respectively.
“Both Mayor [William] Bell and the council have worked diligently to support the BJCTA and help make the transit system better for everyone who uses it,” Rafferty said. “But things keep going sideways, and it’s because of politics at the board level. The executive director is great, the employees are great, city government is there to be supportive, so where is the problem?
“It just makes me mad,” Rafferty added. “It’s fair to say that a majority of the council is extremely upset about what seems to be happening here. It’s a big mess, and there is no reason for it. Under Ann, everything was running so well, and the direction was so positive. I don’t know how we recover from this.”
The Mayor Weighs In
Two days prior to the emergency board meeting, in a letter to BJCTA board members, Mayor Bell had expressed his own concerns about recent actions of the board — and the potential impacts of those actions on the future of the transit system and the city as a whole. Bell referred to “several members” of the board who, the mayor said, had attributed statements to him that he had not made. The implication was that those statements have been used as leverage in furthering an agenda that Bell views as potentially damaging to the real progress the city is making on transit — most of which has been implemented or initiated under August’s direction of the BJCTA.
Let me state emphatically and clearly that no board member of BJCTA speaks for the Mayor or the Mayor’s Office concerning transit matters or any matter, Bell wrote. It is important for the growth of public transportation that there are clear lines of communication and stability within the operation of the BJCTA. I would hope that all members of the BJCTA would work towards that goal and the overall good of the City.
After the October 9 meeting, Bell was asked, via the city’s public information officer, April Odom, to comment on the board’s decision to cut ties with August. Odom said the mayor’s primary concern is the message that turmoil on the transit board and the loss of a nationally respected transit CEO sends to the sources of federal funding that will be necessary to any aspirations for better transit in Birmingham. Those include several large transit-related grants for which Birmingham is competing with other cities across the nation — most notably, a “TIGER” grant from the federal Department of Transportation that, among other things, would fund a major expansion and other improvements in transit services.
In addition, Odom pointed to the new intermodal facility now under construction along the south side of Morris Avenue — it is set to open in 2016 — and plans for using preparation for the 2021 World Games, which Birmingham will host, as a springboard for both immediate and long-term enhancement of the bus system. She also provided a succinct comment from Mayor Bell:
“I’m assessing the authority’s decision, the council involvement in the current events, and the negative impact it will have on our federal efforts,” Bell said.
Neither the mayor nor Odom named any of the “several” BJCTA board members the mayor says have presumed to speak on his behalf. Knowledgeable sources inside and outside City Hall point to Mauldin, who is an administrative assistant to Bell, as the obvious unnamed target of the mayor’s general rebuke of the board.
“Since Bacarra got on the board,” said one such observer, who spoke on condition of anonymity, “she has been right in the middle of every time things have gone sideways between the board and August, or the board and City Hall. She’ll vote a certain way on the board and tell people that the mayor’s office makes her vote that way. She has done things, like setting up meetings, that she leads people to believe are being done at the mayor’s direction, when that is not the case.”
Mauldin says she has never tried to give anyone the impression that she speaks for Bell. As for the mayor’s letter to the board, she says she did not necessarily read his comments as being directed at her — and that, if they were, then the mayor was mistaken.
“I am not sure who Mayor Bell was referring to,” Mauldin told Weld on October 12, in an emailed response to several questions about matters related to the BJCTA. “You would need to ask Mayor Bell directly. I do not speak for Mayor Bell, nor have I represented to anyone that I speak for Mayor Bell.”
Board chair Sellers had been asked about the mayor’s letter earlier, and had much the same response as Mauldin.
“I have no reaction,” Sellers said. “I’m not sure which board members he was referring to. I know it wasn’t me. I don’t think it’s a cause for concern, just a misunderstanding.”
“It’s her decision”
In the immediate aftermath of the October 9 meeting, the five board members stood together in the lobby of the BJCTA executive offices to answer reporters’ questions. Responding to a query about the relationship between the board and August, Sellers called into question what he — with nods and murmurs of assent from Mauldin, Henderson and Lassiter — said were “a lot of inaccuracies” in news media reports — most particularly Weld’s October 7 cover story — that the board had been intent on forcing August out for at least the past year, and that board members had continued to interfere in the system’s day-to-day operations.
“We enjoyed working with her,” Sellers said, “It’s been a good three years, but retirement is her decision. She is definitely not being forced out. It’s not our decision, it’s her decision.” Given August’s stated intention to allow her contract to expire, said Sellers, “I didn’t think there would be an issue” if the actual date of her departure was earlier.
In ending the relationship with August, the board named current chief of staff Barbara Murdock, a longtime BJCTA employee, as interim director. Sellers said a national search to fill the position is planned, and that he is confident that the “great staff and great team leaders” at the agency will ensure that “we don’t miss a beat” in the quality of services available to transit users while the search is ongoing.
Asked about the timing of the emergency meeting, Sellers said the decision to call it had been made that same morning. The five board members at the meeting had all been at a transit conference in San Francisco when they learned of August’s statements to Weld regarding her intention to leave at the end of the year. Had the five met while in San Francisco and made the decision to buy out the remainder of August’s contract — a meeting which, if it took place, would be a violation of Alabama’s open meetings law?
“We did not meet in San Francisco,” Johnnye Lassiter said emphatically. As Sellers’ earlier comments had been, Lassiter’s statement was backed verbally by the group as a whole.
Meanwhile, Ann August, still greeting well-wishers in the boardroom where her tenure in Birmingham had just come to a truncated end, described herself as “feeling great.”
“I do feel great,” she repeated. “I’m glad that we have come to a resolve. I want this team to keep moving, to take transit in Birmingham to the next level, a place that we all know it can reach with the right support and the right leadership.”
Had August seen any in accuracies in news reports that cited tensions with the BJCTA board as an ongoing source of frustration for her, and the primary reason for her decision to leave when her contract expired? She smiled.
Hardly a revelation
In fact, for the board, the “revelation” of August’s plan to leave the BJCTA at the end of the year had not been a revelation at all.
She had met with the board’s executive committee — Sellers, Henderson and Mauldin — on August 28, and indicated that she wanted to stay on the job through 2016.
Under the terms she proposed, which included an increase in salary from $131,000 to $161,000, August would see several critical initiatives to completion by the end of the coming year. Among other items, these included completion of the intermodal facility, implementing a downtown circulator system that has been discussed for years, completing a systemwide and agencywide technology upgrade, and filling two key executive positions with top national talent.
August had only one demand: That any new contract include language to limit the board’s ability to communicate directly with BJCTA staff without going through the executive director.
Having heard no response to her proposal by September 11, August composed a letter to Sellers in which she highlighted accomplishments during her tenure, praised BJCTA employees, and wrote optimistically of the potential for continued improvement. She advised the board that if she had no opportunity for further discussions within one week, she would voluntarily end her tenure on December 31.
I desire to see several projects through to completion through calendar year 2016, but this contractual relationship will end because of professional and personal reasons, August wrote.
“You had at least four board members who wanted to fire August that day,” says a source with knowledge of the situation. “But they sat on it. Until her reason for leaving turned up in the newspaper.”
That would have been Wednesday, October 7, when Sellers, Henderson, Mauldin, Lassiter and Topping were in San Francisco — or, at latest, Thursday the 8th, when they were traveling back to Birmingham. According to Sellers, there was no conversation about a called meeting, or any action concerning August, until after the board’s executive committee met with August on the morning of Friday the 9th.
But there appears to be room for some questions about what the board decided, and when.
Sometime prior to the 9th, Sellers sent an email to August, following up on a conversation in which August had requested a meeting about her contract. She had told Sellers that she would serve out her contract, or leave prior to December 31 if the board would pay the balance of the agreement. Sellers replied:
In my opinion if u haven’t hired John Saxon [note: Saxon is a well-known Birmingham employment lawyer] I wouldn’t spend the money on an attorney. The board has no issue with paying out the rest of ur contract. I would love to meet to talk about that transition if Friday is good.
Asked again about the board’s actions upon learning that August had “announced” her intention to stay at BJCTA through the end of the year, Sellers echoed Lassiter’s words from the post-meeting media availability.
“There was no discussion in San Francisco,” Sellers said.
A reputation at stake
The Birmingham-Jefferson County Transit Authority has been defined by turmoil since its creation more than 40 years ago. Amid this latest round of back-and-forth — between factions of the BJCTA board, between board members and City Hall, between board members and the now-former executive director — questions also have been raised about relationships between BJCTA and city officials and individuals and entities that provide transit-related services, and how those relationships might affect the future of transit in the Birmingham region.
Weld will examine some of those questions next week. In the meantime, the uncertainty about the system’s future, coupled with the circumstances of August’s departure, has created an atmosphere in which almost everyone who is paying attention expresses deep concern about what happens next — and is reluctant to speak out about it because of what one calls the “toxic dump” of politics surrounding the agency.
“Birmingham deserves a good thing,” says Kim Rafferty. “We have an opportunity for our transit system to be that thing, but what is going on now taints everything that we’ve been working so hard on. It’s not only a lot of money for improving our transit system that’s on the line, it’s Birmingham’s reputation.”