The Birmingham-Jefferson County Transit Authority was created in 1971 by an act of the Alabama Legislature. The legislative action came in response to an intensive, yearlong lobbying effort spearheaded by the Birmingham Area Chamber of Commerce and its then-chairman, Richard Pizitz. It enabled the reorganization of a once-robust city transit system that had been declining for years, in terms of both ridership and the quality and quantity of bus service provided — most especially service to the fast-growing suburbs to the south of Birmingham proper.
The absence of a viable mass transit system that was regional in scope was “a very serious community problem,” Pizitz told the Chamber’s executive committee in February 1970, making the argument that the organization should take a leadership role in bringing all of the key players together. As an entity that served the entire metropolitan area, Pizitz maintained, “the Chamber might serve as a catalyst to bring these outlying communities into the situation.”
Initially, the BJCTA was governed by a five-member board of directors — three appointed by the city of Birmingham, and one each by the Jefferson County Commission, the county’s legislative delegation, and the consortium of nine suburban municipalities that agreed to participate in the new system. By February 1972, Chamber board minutes reported that the BJCTA board was “meeting now on a weekly basis at the Chamber of Commerce, using our meeting space as a neutral base.”
The characterization of the Chamber offices as “a neutral base” suggested the difficulty of curing Birmingham’s transit ills with the mere artifice of a “regional” bus system. The image conjured was not one of people embarking on a unified effort to support the growth and development of the community as a whole, but rather that of opposing forces in a great struggle, attempting to come to some accommodation of their differences instead of working to resolve them.
Nine months later, with the BJCTA less than a year old, much of another Chamber board meeting was consumed by discussion of the bus system. Rather than celebrating what had been intended as a great leap forward in regional cooperation, the discussion centered on the mounting woes of what already was becoming an uneasy partnership between the funding entities.
“There has been considerable concern that some of the municipalities involved will not be willing to pay” their share of the total allocation for the bus system, which was calculated on a pro rata basis for each funding partner. The Chamber went to work again, rallying support from both the public and private sectors to call on the leaders of the participating municipalities to pony up their share of transit funding. Though not all of the anticipated participants ultimately followed through on their initial commitment, the immediate funding crisis was averted.
The difficulties that attended the birth of the BJCTA set the tone for an agency that has been defined by crisis of one kind or another for nearly 45 years. The funding partnership proved perennially fragile, fraught with racial politics and city-suburban tension that was exacerbated by external events and circumstances — most notably, the effects of the national economic woes of the late 1970s and early 1980s, which hit Birmingham particularly hard; the election in 1979 of Richard Arrington, Jr. as Birmingham’s first black mayor; and the related phenomena of accelerated “white flight” from the city and increasing suburban sprawl.
By the mid-1980s, the BJCTA had become little more than a theater for political drama, shot through with the unavoidable subtexts of race and class. As that decade wore on, the agency was at the center of a seemingly unending series of controversies involving declining ridership, mismanagement at both the executive and board levels, and allegations of influence peddling and other malfeasance.
In the years since, despite periodic efforts — of varying intensity, civic weight, and relative success — to improve, enhance and expand the system, regional mass transit has remained a dream of bus riders and other transit advocates, and an afterthought to the rest of a community that is more devoted than most to the automobile as the preferred means of travel from one point to another.
Meanwhile, the BJCTA remains a locus of antipathy — between members of its board, between the board and BJCTA executive staff, between the board and the Birmingham City Council, between individual councilors, and between the system and the public it is charged with serving. And, whether rightly or not, the aura of incompetence, mistrust, apathy and corruption that has dogged the BJCTA for generations lingers, ever in danger of flaring into yet another crisis.
Problem at the top?
The latest such flare-up springs from more than a year of tension between a faction of board members and executive director Ann August. August had informed the board in September of her intention to leave the BJCTA after her contract expired on December 31 of this year. But following the publication on October 7 of a Weld cover story in which the director made her plans public and cited ongoing interference by board members in the day-to-day operation of the system as a factor in her decision — an assertion that the board members in question have denied — five members of the nine-person board convened in a specially called emergency meeting on Friday, October 9. There, they voted unanimously to buy out the remainder of August’s contract and terminate the relationship immediately.
Over the past 30 years, the average tenure for BJCTA executive directors has been about two-and-three-quarter years. Had August served out her contract, she would have spent three years in Birmingham — a time during which she earned praise for making marked improvements in the agency’s performance, taking steps to bring it up to date in terms of technology, forming productive relationships with funding partners and generally laying a strong foundation for future growth and expansion.
August also is highly regarded in national transit circles, due to her work in both Birmingham and in Sumter, South Carolina, where she spent more than 15 years as the director of the regional transit system before coming to Birmingham in January 2013. In March of this year, August was honored in Washington, DC, by the Conference of Minority Transportation Officials (COMTO) as one of 13 “Women Who Move the Nation.”
“What she has accomplished should be known by everybody,” J.O. Hill, a 30-year employee of the BJCTA and local president of the transit workers union, said during the October 9 meeting. “She is well-known and respected, 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, it’s got to be at the top.”
While stopping short of criticizing the board, Birmingham City Council President Johnathan Austin believes the entire situation “could have been handled differently.” There is no getting around the fact that the friction that has attended not only August’s departure, but much of her tenure with the BJCTA, casts Birmingham in a bad light nationally, Austin told Weld last week.
“If the board chooses not to renew the director’s contract, that is their prerogative,” Austin said. “As a city councilor, my job is not to chastise the board or to praise them. My job, along with the other councilors, is to appoint members to the transit authority who are going to make the best decisions for the riders who use the bus system.
“I don’t know why they chose not to renew [August’s] contract,” Austin continued. “But from my perspective, the aesthetics of it don’t look good. Perception is reality, and even though I support the board’s prerogative to make that decision, I know that the perception of it is not good. Ms. August is well thought of, in Birmingham and around the country, and while the board may see things that we don’t, they also need to be aware that everything they say or do may negatively impact some opportunities that we have out there to continue to improve the system.”
“Nothing to address here”
Beyond the question of why the BJCTA board would part ways with a successful and highly regarded director — one who had proposed to the board this summer that she stay through 2016 to see several major initiatives to fruition — with whom its members professed to have no problems, the uproar over August’s departure has been fueled further by other questions that raise the specter of the agency’s age-old reputation. These questions have revolved around relationships between the BJCTA board and entities that provide transit-related services — and how those relationships might affect the future of Birmingham’s transit system.
In that regard, a single name has popped up frequently over the past several months: MV Transportation. The largest passenger transportation company in the nation, Dallas-based MV provides fixed route, paratransit, shuttle and commuter bus services, serving more than 130 locations in 28 states and the District of Columbia. MV also is an executive “headhunter” for the transit industry, coordinating national searches to help clients identify candidates for executive positions; currently, the company is under contract to perform that service relative to two positions open at the BJCTA prior to August’s departure.
Questions about MV began to swirl following a transit-related event held in Cuba from August 2-9. MV was the “Gold Sponsor” of an industry delegation to explore business opportunities in the nation with which the United States is in the process of normalizing relations after an embargo of more than 50 years. The delegation was organized by the Transportation Diversity Council (TDC), a New York-based nonprofit that conducts training and works to develop talent and increase job opportunities in the transit industry.
Joining the TDC delegation in Cuba were BJCTA board members Patrick Sellers and Bacarra Mauldin — two of the four-member faction that had clashed with August — along with Courtney French, who provides legal counsel to the BJCTA under contract. In the weeks after the conference, allegations began to surface from various quarters that MV had paid for the Birmingham contingent to attend, and that the company was attempting to position itself to obtain the contract for paratransit should the BJCTA board decide to outsource that service — an option that Sellers has said the board is considering.
Following the October 9 meeting, Sellers and Mauldin were asked directly whether MV had paid for them to attend the conference, for which the registration fee was $4,000 per person. Both said no, with Sellers, a minister, saying that his church had paid his registration fee, and Mauldin saying that she had paid her own. An MV representative reached for comment said that the company “absolutely did not” pay the fees.
Dwayne Sampson, the CEO of TDC, confirmed that MV had not paid for Sellers and Mauldin’s registrations. But, he said, attorney French had. Reached by phone on October 19, French said that he had paid for Sellers and Mauldin, in addition to himself. He also offered an explanation, saying that the three had been together at a transit conference in Boston in mid-July when they discovered that the deadline for registering for TDC’s Cuba delegation was about to expire.
“It came about very fast,” French said. “I was on the phone with [Sampson’s] assistant, and was told that they had to have payment on the spot. I was the only one with a credit card on me, so I told Patrick and Bacarra that I would pay for the three of us, and that they could pay me back — which they did, as soon as we got back from Boston.”
French went on to say that he was “disappointed” that Weld and other media outlets were looking into questions about the Cuba trip. He characterized Weld’s recent articles on the turmoil at the BJCTA as “a witch hunt” that “has nothing to do with the future of transit in Birmingham,” and said he would have no further comments for Weld on transit-related matters.
“There is nothing to address here, other than the fact that the payment was made, and that I was paid right back,” French said. “Don’t even expect to talk to me about transit in Birmingham again, because what you’re writing is garbage.”
Skirting the line?
Prior to speaking with French, Weld contacted the Alabama Ethics Commission in an effort to determine whether French’s paying registration fees for Sellers and Mauldin constituted a violation of the state’s ethics laws. The question to the commission’s general counsel, Hugh Evans, was posed in hypothetical terms: If a contractor to a publicly-funded agency pays conference registration fees for board members of that agency, does that constitute an ethics violation? If so, on whose part? What if the board members reimbursed the contractor after the fact?
Evans provided the following response, via email:
This is the type of issue (opinion based on hypothetical facts, or even real facts but related to a third-party’s actions) that needs to be handled formally by the Commission. However, the Commission does not meet again until December 2, 2015.
In addition, we cannot opine on something that has already occurred. If you believe the law has been violated, you may file a complaint (and we recommend you do so) and we will investigate it.
More questions than answers
There is a dictum, originally included as part of the code of conduct for United States judges, that has come to be an ethical rule of thumb in law, business and government: Avoid even the appearance of impropriety.
If nothing else, that dictum may serve as a caution in the wake of Ann August’s departure from the BJCTA. Whether for good reasons or bad, the board chose to part ways with the popular director. Whether board members and contractors have skirted, or crossed, ethical lines remains to be seen. Whether MV Transportation is angling in a questionable manner for BJCTA business, or simply found itself caught in the middle of yet another round of the acrimony and political infighting that has characterized the BJCTA board for most of its history, is a matter that will become apparent in due time.
In any case, people are watching. Bus riders, transit advocates, elected officials, the local news media and other interested parties are more alert to the decisions being made about the future of transit in Birmingham than they have been for some time. Presumably, every person who claims to care about the growth of the city and region — and about its ability to grow and prosper — wants a viable regional transit system that provides high-quality services with optimal effectiveness and efficiency.
But, in the midst of a situation in which there remain more questions than answers, the real question is, why, after nearly 45 years of trying — and 45 years of being throttled by the BJCTA’s accumulating history of underachievement — doesn’t Birmingham have one? Even more importantly, what is this board going to do about it?
Full disclosure: In the summer of 2014, the managing partners of Weld, Heather Milam Nikolich and Mark Kelly, met with a small group of prospective investors in Weld that included BJCTA attorney Courtney French. There was no follow-up to that meeting, and no formal request for an investment from that group was made.