Friday, October 5, 2012

MARTA board selects Keith Parker, head of San Antonio transit agency, as next GM

Posted By on Fri, Oct 5, 2012 at 1:14 PM

Keith Parker
  • Courtesy VIA
  • Keith Parker
MARTA's board of directors last night voted 9-0 to name Keith Parker, the head of San Antonio's transit agency, to succeed Bev Scott as the CEO and general manager of MARTA.

Should Parker accept the offer, the move will be a step up for the Virginia native. Since July 2009, he's served as president and CEO of VIA, San Antonio's transit agency which provides bus, streetcar and paratransit service. According to MARTA, VIA serves an estimated 150,000 riders every day. Prior to that position, he led the Charlotte Area Transit System, or CATS. He joined that agency in 2000 as chief operating officer and was responsible for bus and paratransit operations and helped develop the transit system's light-rail plans. He's also served as Charlotte's assistant city manager, CEO of the Clark County Transit Authority in Vancouver, Wash., and deputy director of the transit agency in Richmond, Va. (Interested in a 5-page interview with Parker about his leadership style in a transit trade publication? You're in luck!)

“We strongly believe that Keith Parker is the best choice for MARTA,” Board Chairman Frederick L. Daniels Jr., said in a statement after the vote. “We are extremely proud of the work we have done to this point, and we are very confident that we have picked the right man, for the right job, at the right time.”

Bus and rail advocates gave a thumbs up to the board's decision.

"From the transit advocate standpoint, he's a very desirable candidate," says Ashley Robbins, president of Citizens for Progressive Transit. "He's done some progressive things in Charlotte and San Antonio and he's going to do the innovative things we want MARTA to do."

Some of those initiatives are possible even with MARTA's financial woes, Robbins says. She points to Parker's decision in Charlotte to start "bus rider clinics," days where fares were lifted and transit staffers helped people who normally don't ride buses get acquainted with the system. While it's a short-term cost, it pays off in the long-term if the transit system can attract so-called "choice riders" — people who don't depend on a bus or train to move about the world.

"Having that community outreach is what a system that's cash strapped needs to do," she says. "You have to find other ways to grow ridership."

State Sen. Vincent Fort, D-Atlanta, who worked with a group of transit activists and civic leaders calling for more community input in the GM search, said he's disappointed he and others couldn't meet with Parker before the board vote but that he's pleased with the selection.

"What I've heard about him is that he's transit-oriented and works well with a broad range of groups and interests," Fort says. "I think that's a good thing. I'm looking forward to getting to know him and work with him."

MARTA will now send Parker a formal letter and start beginning contract negotiations. Henry Muñoz III, the chairman of VIA's Board of Trustees, which governs San Antonio's system, was quoted by the San Antonio Express-News as saying the agency needed to propose a counteroffer and keep Parker. Other VIA directors, who judging from published reports have been impressed by his leadership, are quoted as saying he's most likely ready to take on the CEO position in Atlanta.

Parker edged out Stephen Bland, the head of Pittsburgh's transit agency, in the national search for the next MARTA leader. Bland's also one of three finalists to take over Jacksonville's transit agency.

The head of the Gold Dome committee tasked with overseeing the transit agency says MARTA's board broke transparency laws during the process to select Scott's successor. In a complaint to state Attorney General Sam Olens, state Rep. Mike Jacobs, R-Brookhaven, says the board violated open meetings rules when Barbara Babbit Kaufman, a boardmember, sent an email to fellow directors asking them to submit their "vote." Jacobs then claimed Kaufman falsified an affidavit saying she complied with the law. Kaufman denies intentionally violating the law and the dispute is ongoing.

Jacobs said early on in the process that choosing a GM from within MARTA could strengthen its relationship with the Gold Dome, which has used the transit system alternately over the years as a punching bag and political football. He told Steve Visser on Wednesday that the omission of his favored pick, MARTA Chief Operating Officer Dwight Ferrell, played no role in his complaint to Olens. Maria Saporta and David Pendered note that Wendy Butler, the MARTA boardmember who abstained from the vote selecting Parker, managed Jacobs' 2010 re-election campaign.

The leadership change couldn't come at a more crucial time for MARTA. A recent audit by KPMG found that the transit agency, always a punching bag for Atlanta haters and suburban and rural state lawmakers, depended on an "unsustainable economic model" and should raise revenues and outsource some services. In addition, the report said MARTA spent $50 million more than the national average on employee benefits — however, buried in the report you'll note that MARTA's workers also have low salaries compared to their counterparts in state government and the private sector.

The audit has only fueled calls from some, including Jacobs, to privatize parts of the system, a politically volatile topic which is surely to come up when the Legislature convenes in January. That's around the same time Parker will be starting his job, should he accept MARTA's offer. Have fun, sir! If you need to catch up on who's who under the Gold Dome, the best place to start is our annual round-ups of the state Capitol's best and brightest.

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