Secrecy of MARTA search sparks criticism

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Secrecy of MARTA search sparks criticism

MARTA officials are expected to make public Friday the finalists to become general manager, but they’re already facing a backlash about the secrecy in choosing the next head of the financially beleaguered transit agency.

Transit advocates complain the secret search process gave no opportunity for input to riders, who have faced increased fares, decreased service and shuttered restrooms at stations. Democratic-leaning groups feared Republican legislators were influencing board members, and taxpayer advocates skeptical of MARTA spending said the candidates should face a public inquiry.

“MARTA is destitute,” said Barbara Payne, executive director of the Fulton County Taxpayer Foundation. “Taxpayers don’t trust big government; riders are starting not to trust MARTA. Let’s open up the process and let people ask questions and know who these people are.”

General Manager Beverly Scott said she will step down Dec. 31 at the end of her five-year contract. Her tenure has been marred by a recession that undercut MARTA’s sales tax revenue, leading to service cuts and two fare hikes. MARTA is now one of the country’s most expensive tickets.

At a news conference Thursday Payne lobbied against a search she called “undemocratic, unconscionable and unacceptable.” Joining her were Colleen Kiernan, director of the Georgia Chapter of the Sierra Club, Joe Beasley of the Rainbow Push Coalition and John Evans of the DeKalb County NAACP.

Board member Juanita Abernathy said she was stunned by the public criticism of the search, which was handled in the same manner as previous searches, and with legislators — both Democrats and Republicans — weighing in on the process.

“If everybody will back off and allow the process to take place — instead of trying to decide how the process should go — everything will be fine,” she said.

Charles Pursley, the lawyer for the MARTA board of directors, defended the secrecy of the search as necessary so transit officials could apply without risking their jobs.

He said the search committee interviewed seven candidates, and he expected that — after a closed debate — at least two finalists will get a vote from the full board. He would not confirm whether the top finalists were current MARTA Chief Operating Officer Dwight Ferrell and Keith Parker, head of the transit agency in San Antonio. Both have been publicly identified as candidates with board backing.

Pursley did say the process had input from outsiders.

“There have been contacts from outside groups about what they are looking for and contacts about particular candidates,” he said. “I am sure different legislators have expressed their individual and possibly collective opinions.”

State Sen. Vincent Fort, D-Atlanta, said that input is what concerned him. He feared that the search committee was trying to please the GOP-dominated Legislature and the Republican governor out of some hope it could win some state support for the agency that now survives largely on a 1-penny sales tax, fares and federal grants.

“MARTA does not need a lapdog as the next general manager,” he said.

Fort focused his criticism on comments by state Sen. Mike Jacobs, R-Atlanta, the chairman of the legislative committee that oversees MARTA. Jacobs has publicly praised Ferrell as a solid choice to head MARTA.

Jacobs said the next general manager has to privatize some administrative and support operations to stabilize the struggling agency, which relies on dwindling cash reserves each year to balance its books.

“While I appreciate Senator Fort’s penchant for rhetorical flourish,” Jacobs said, “the perpetual political game-playing with respect to MARTA needs to come to an end, and this fiscal situation needs to be fixed immediately.”

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