Sunday, February 4, 2018

The Bogus GM Search Boondoggle

I think we can do better.
When I heard of our current General Manager's impending retirement, I was immediately hit with dread. It could get worse, I reckoned. Apparently, I was correct.

After what was touted as a "worldwide search," all the talking heads could come up with was one finalist. Yes, only one. You'd think such a wide call for applicants might include more than that, but all our hiring procedure could procure was one, and he already is in local management? Wow, folks. Sounds pretty flimsy on the surface. Your only choice is an import from Canada who thinks safety and schedule are synonymous? One who was fired from his last job, without any explanation except that it might have been "political" fallout from a failed ballot initiative to provide Vancouver, British Columbia with added transit funding. Well now, is that all Portland could come up with? Surely, there are more-deserving and qualified corporate muckity-mucks available than one finalist.

As I watched our Amalgamated Transit Union Local 757 President Shirley Block question Mr. Doug Kelsey, I noticed several things. First, she was very kind to a man who has run roughshod over our Operations department for two years. She grimaced at times, quietly laughing at his smug answers at others. Our soon-to-be-golden-goose outgoing GM watched with a smirk on his face. President Block did not lambaste Mr. Kelsey for his clumsy tenure, as I hoped she would, but calmly laid out a very deliberate framework for ATU 757's Vice President, Jon Hunt, to press Mr. Kelsey even harder.

First, a little background on the selection process. TriMet contracted a recruitment firm to search for "qualified" candidates for the GM position. While there's no telling how much the district paid for this search, it's obvious that it was too much. When you sit in the driver's seat of a transit vehicle, the qualifications are obvious: has the applicant ever driven a bus in-service in their life? If not, proceed to the next applicant.

(My retired brother Al Margulies, who writes a hard-hitting local transit blog, put it succinctly when he stated that our transit agency can afford to spend a fortune on this search but won't put out enough to transport sick operators back home. It seems such a put-on when you have a rubber-stamp "board" trying to say all the right things when it's obvious Mr. Kelsey has been groomed for this job the past two years. Spare us, Mr. Board President, because it's all too obvious to those of us who roll the wheels for a living: Mr. McFarlane wants Mr. Kelsey, and that's how it played out. As if we're too stupid to realize the game being played.)

In his opening statement, Mr. Kelsey predictably bows to his masters by saying how "humbled" he is to be the finalist in this sham of a search. Really? The bullshit factor was immediately magnified ten times with that. Continuing in his Canadian-accented corporate-speak, he says he "comes from a middle-class family" background. Blah, blah, and continuous blah.

President Block is welcomed by Board Chair Mr. Bruce Warner, who says "it's nice to see you here this morning." As if there's anywhere else she'd be? She calmly lays out her plan: six questions, which Mr. Kelsey asks if they'll be "yes or no answers?" Real funny. God, I hate suited replies. Her first question is pointed: "Do you believe in keeping union jobs, or contracting out jobs?" Wow, she hit him hard with the first one. Of course, we already know the answer. Our management has made it a pointed goal of splitting and breaking the union by favoring non-union "outsiders" to fill desperately-needed positions in maintenance. His reply is the standard corporate response.

"I believe in both union, and contract-out," he says. BAM. Disqualified, in our collective opinion. Typically, this is a standard kill-the-union-by-splitting-the-workforce response. "I think there's a balance," he adds. "I believe in healthy tensions, which keeps us in checks and balances." In the transit industry the past few decades, this statement is proven nonsense. There's nothing "healthy" in the tensions management has created through divisive edicts designed to punish those of us who roll the wheels their salaries are attached to.

It's certainly not "healthy" to leave a sick employee stranded in the middle of nowhere rather than ensuring their safe transport. It's certifiably unhealthy to expect operators to ignore safe-driving techniques to adhere to tight schedules. Punishing front line workers who have been assaulted and need extra recovery time is simple cruelty, akin to the orphans' treatment in Dickens' Oliver Twist. Putting trouble-causing passengers first when addressing one-sided media stories putting operators in a bad light is not supportive or "healthy" employee relations. Letting said stories pass without follow-up when operators are exonerated, is callous character assassination. Punishing operators whose bodies are damaged due to job-related injuries over "time loss" is detrimental to our collective well-being.


No. You're too glued to the "bad operator" stories the corporate media serves up, refusing to read deeper in to causation and effect of transit issues. You'll spend 20 minutes thumbing-up a complaint but won't take the same time to write a commendation when we daily exceed expectations to make your transit experience safe and smooth. Your apathy is astoundingly predictable, if not blatantly pathetic. If transit woes continue, we could be faced with a total collapse of the industry. This would make your lives miserable, even if you don't use transit. Just think of the traffic now, then compound it hundreds of times without buses and light rail available to ferry 300,000-plus people every day.

Mr. Kelsey continued, blithely bragging about how "diverse" recent management hiring choices have been. Al Margulies has a brilliant point when he mentions how many front line workers have multiple degrees in many fields, are multi-faceted leaders who decided to drive transit for the (dwindling) benefits. Unfortunately, we don't see any of them being touted as "finalists" for the position Mr. Kelsey is drooling over. This strikes me as highly-convenient for him, yet horribly-insulting to our truly "diverse" membership. There are many operators infinitely more qualified to do the job than many a stiff-suit could ever dream of.

The conversation with President Block and Mr. Kelsey quickly went downhill. At one of his replies, she actually laughed. I'm surprised she didn't fall out of her chair, but to her credit, President Block kept her composure. When she asked him, "Do you put On-Time Performance ahead of safety?" I couldn't wait to hear his reply, and when I did, it was expected.

"Absolutely not," he said with mock sincerity. "You can be safe, and be on time." This response tells every operator what we already know: Mr. Kelsey doesn't know frijoles from salsa when it comes to operating a transit vehicle. One of his executives told me last year, "We have three core objectives in Transportation: Safety, On-Time Performance, and Customer Service, which align with the agency's vision, mission and values. We should incorporate these elements in our day-to-day decision-making and insist on success."

Nice try Boss, but it doesn't pass the excrement test. Management's vision, mission and values do not match ours, and we're the most important lug nuts on the wheel. You can insist all you want, but my mantra is detailed and centered around one thing: safety. Rarely am I worried about schedule, except that it is nice to get my breaks. If I'm stuck in traffic, or passengers create a disturbance, or any number of things that can go awry actually do, then (and always) my main goal is to deliver my cargo safely to its destination. That's why I drive the same way no matter what the time clock says. Still, my OTP (On-Time Performance) hovers just over 90%, and that's pretty damn good. That tells people that nine out of every 10 times, I am on time. They still complain though, if you're two minutes late to a transit center due to traffic and they miss their connecting line. Better to be safely delivered by a bus than taking an ambulance ride because your operator broke several traffic laws to deliver you on time. Those yearly safety patches are more important to me than management's element incorporation nonsense.

Corporate suits have no business running a transit agency; we most definitely are not customer service representatives. We're trained professional drivers and rail operators, and our millions of combined safe miles are infinitely more impressive than the relatively few mishaps we're involved in.

Departing from the circus/board meeting for a few moments, let's tackle the corporate-speak nonsense that has become all too common in transit. First and second, it's obvious neither of them have sat in my seat. Otherwise, those words would never leave their mouths. (I've covered this schedule-over-safety edict a few times, especially when I wrote You Left Two Seconds Early! last year.) We had just noticed the "Safety over Schedule" signs disappearing from the garages, and from there it only got worse. It's only obvious that if we stray from safe driving techniques we're taught and consistently reminded of every day of service, then we're never getting anywhere, especially "on time."

Third, we carry passengers, not customers. They may be customers when they purchase a fare, such as on an airline, but once they step past the yellow line, they become passengers. Try berating an airline pilot while he or she is in control of their aircraft, or assaulting them, and you're looking at jail time. Period. Why? Because such behavior is a safety violation, and can endanger the well-being of fellow passengers. Conductors of passenger trains and captains of cruise ships expect those on board to follow the rules. Why is a city transit operator, in uniform and in control of heavy equipment any different? Quit calling them customers and insist they follow the rules expected of passengers, which should be blasted via the media at every opportunity. And when of them shreds past the line and assaults us, they should be banished F-O-R-E-V-E-R from our vehicles, not slapped on the wrist and sent to their room with extra dessert after dinner.

Back to the Kelsey Show. One of management's most outrageous policies lately is not only ludicrous, it's an outright Cruel Sickness and infuriating insult to the professionals who operate vehicles. If we feel that our physical well-being is that which continuing in service would put our passengers at risk, and tell Dispatch it's no longer safe for us to operate, many have been stranded. That's right, left alone on the side of the road. No taxi, no safe ride to our vehicles or home. We're on our own. It's not like this in several other municipalities around the country. Tempe, Arizona for example. They'll help the operator safely find a way home. One Portland operator contends that management's policy discourages "abuse." Thanks, brother. You just insinuated that we're out to cheat the agency, which is I'm sure 99% of the time, not the case. It happened to me, when I became suddenly so ill and exhausted, that I knew immediately that operating in service any further would put everyone on my bus, including myself, at risk. Luckily for me, I just rode transit back to my garage. Many others have not been so lucky.

Kelsey answered President Block's question about stranding ill drivers on the road with an air of incredulity. He didn't seem to believe it happens, but his very department heads have handed down edicts which flatly state an ill operator is left to their own devices if they call in sick. So much for having "Safety" as a "core value" any longer. When we safely deliver 99.5% (my guesstimation here) of our riders to their destination yet are denied safe transport when sudden illness prevents us from continuing in this quest, that's a serious insult to our professional integrity.

President Block was visibly aghast at Kelsey's answer regarding sick operators being stranded. He said it "doesn't pass the test." He acted like he didn't know, or even believe, this was happening. Such a response suggests incompetence, if his own department has policies in place that he wasn't aware of. In fairness, a "new policy" was implemented by Operations in the past few days ensuring safe transport for operators who become too sick to safely drive their vehicle.  It's about damn time, because the former policy didn't "pass the test" at all.

Next to the table came our union's Vice President, Jonathan Hunt. He asked Kelsey about an audit the state conducted a few years back which outlined grave failures by management to address certain key issues regarding communication with our union. Hunt then asked Kelsey if he'd support a new audit to address whether these issues were acted upon and "where are we today with those areas that needed to be improved?" I was aghast at Kelsey's response.

"I haven't had the privilege of reading the past audit," he said, adding "to comment whether a new audit might be needed." Why hasn't he read the audit sanctioned by then-Secretary of State/now Governor Kate Brown? That's an incredible admission of guilt. Specifically, it said to me that he doesn't know enough about his own job to qualify him to become GM. "I'm not necessarily prepared to give you the answer you might want to hear. I'd rather go back and understand the past audit first." Mr. Kelsey, what exactly have you been doing the past two years that would show the front line employees, and the public, that you are qualified to successfully lead this agency? If you don't know what has transpired while TriMet fell from its exalted position as the No. 1 transit agency in this country to No. 18 (or worse, I haven't seen recent ratings), doesn't this suggest you are not prepared to bring us back up again? I'm sorry, but if I was in charge of an agency that past audits had advocated for changes that weren't successfully implemented, I would have been fired for failing to achieve. Why would we support someone who doesn't understand how management has refused to improve relations with its front line employees?

Kelsey seemed to realize the folly of his answer, backtracking to say he meets with union officers, members, etc. "on a weekly basis." If this is true, what exactly is he taking away from these meetings? Certainly not a working knowledge of the issues the agency is facing at a crucial time for Portland's transit agency.

He also said he was "unaware" that a Lift Operator was fired because she was caught on camera peeing in a parking lot. It was a disgusting display of both the public's ignorance of a lack of restroom facilities for our brothers and sisters in the para transit arm of the agency and management's callous disregard for them. Yet he wasn't aware of it? I violently shook my head at this statement. It's awful. Not only what happened to the operator and her subsequent humiliation, but that he said didn't even know about it.

If I went into an interview as ill-prepared as Mr. Kelsey did at this board meeting, I would have heard a "thank you for your time" dismissal within the first few minutes. The fact that a current executive manager applying for the top job was so dismally unprepared for the most elementary of questions from those who represent thousands of local union members should automatically disqualify him from consideration.

Yes, these are some tough words. I'm an employee, but I'm also a citizen who expects his government officials to be accountable to those who transit agencies serve. While I am but one voice in the front line, I'm not the only voice. Many who watched this debacle agree that enough is certainly enough. It's also obvious that I'm not the only one who registered shock at management's sole finalist for the top job.

Our new General Manager, in order to gain respect from those of us who make transit roll, should make immediate changes once that person is hired. First, that person should move the GM's office back to the front lines, specifically into each garage. They should not only read the previously-mentioned audit, but take decisive steps to remove the aura of negativity surrounding union-management relations. Management is top-heavy and needs a severe trimming. Promotions should come directly from those in our ranks who are infinitely more qualified to manage transit than those we have now with no experience behind the wheel. There should be immediate steps to change policy which automatically assumes management knows better than we do, because it has proven incapable, over the past several years, of having a positive and constructive dialogue with us.

The era of Us vs. Them needs to end. Only through teamwork and trust can we rebuild this broken relationship. Replacing the outgoing GM with his clone is not the best way to move forward. Hire someone who is innovative, ready and willing to turn Portland's transit on end, shake it up and re-create it from the top down... and from us, take clues. We can once again be in the top tier of our country's elite transit systems, but it will take respectful cooperation.

Hell, put me in that position. I would move the GM's office back to Center Garage, and immediately re-open the door to those who make split-second decisions every day, all day. We'll replace tired and insulting policies with a freshness not realized here in decades. My first priority would be to fix what's broken, and that would mean an immediate halt to all plans for new capital projects. From the downtown mall to most bus routes, operator break room facilities, and new shelters that actually protect most from our weather, I would get right to work. Only we can read between the lines that have been placed between management and front line workers. Management has proven countless times to be out of touch and punitive, rather than cooperative and proactive.

Meeting with legislators and district attorneys, I would insist on more stringent punishment for those who think it's okay to menace, threaten or assault our workforce. In addition, I would issue a strongly-worded warning to a public that has been allowed too much leniency that it's time they toed the line and behaved as passengers should. Customer service personnel would be trained by bus operators, and complaints would be tossed out a great majority of the time. Our transit police force would spend time riding transit vehicles, providing a presence to deter bad behavior. The idea of a low-income fare might be debatable, but is a realistic and viable possibility. It should come with responsibilities; a contract that when broken, be met with meaningful consequences.

Yeah, I could do the job. For a lot less than these golden turkeys are paid. I would earn the respect of our workforce by strengthening the union, rather than trying to break it. Our contract would look much different than it does today, especially for our respected retirees. No longer would front line employees have to dread the end of their final shift, nor would they worry about being disciplined for defending themselves against attack. It is an American right to defend oneself; just working for a transit agency afraid of its assailant public's shadow doesn't mean we shouldn't be able to re-define the vague term "reasonable self defense."

Further, I would petition the state government to make our "board" an electable body, answerable to the public it supposedly represents. No more rubber stamp bodies allowed. If my first year didn't result in obviously measurable improvements, I would expect to be replaced not by my right-hand man, but by a fresh face.

I'm not the only one who could lead us across the bridge over past failures. My brothers and sisters are diverse and highly-innovative and intelligent group with years of experience in all types of fields. I would bet good money that one of us would be a better choice than this recent debacle provided. The whole process is a transparent joke, and we're not laughing.

Al Margulies has it right when he says transit employees don't have enough political power to overcome the bullshit factor we've faced the past decade. It's time for us ALL to rise up and provide our city with some air freshener. The public should support us; we are always there for them, and it's time to call in some markers. If a skunk falls victim on the road, the stink remains a long time. This time, that animal is smoldering among us so everyone we serve should also be able to smell it.

Back to the drawing board. It doesn't "pass the test" they only gave us one option in this "worldwide search." Since I began this post, they back-pedalled and sent the search team back out again. (I hope KL2 gives us a discount.) Management has since changed the "policy" so that operators who become ill on their routes aren't stranded on the side of the road. Amazing. Maybe some common sense is making its way back to our world. I sure hope so, because the smell is overwhelming, from the driver side.


  1. It was a similar "worldwide search" that produced Neil McFarlane. It was 6 weeks from the time Fred retired to when Neil was hired.

    "Earlier this month at a Metro Council Work Session, David Bragdon and Robert Liberty reported on a conversation that they had with George Passadore, president of the TriMet Board. They had hoped that the Metro Council would be consulted on the appointment.

    Bragdon and Liberty said they had some recommendations, but were reportedly told by Passadore that TriMet's board was already down to eight candidates and hoped to have one selected by April 23.

    This morning, Bragdon said, "They appeared to already have someone in mind for the position" before the process started."

    1. They tend to groom their favorites, and stage a dog-and-pony show for the public. I hope the public gets the hint.

    2. They won't -- the fact that it's happening again and nobody seems to realize this is a repeat doesn't bode well.

      Also: Nobody cares about who the TriMet GM is, except OPAL and ATU.

    3. Unfortunately Max, that seems to be the case. Problem is, those who use transit should care, because WE take a great number of them to and from work. If the agency isn't in good hands, service and morale suffer. It's not just our problem, it's the entire metro area's concern as well.

      Thanks for chiming in!