For the Birmingham-Jefferson County Transit Authority, the closing weeks of 2014 and the beginning of the current year were turbulent. On January 5, a special called meeting of the BJCTA board was the scene of a dramatic showdown between two factions of the board with very different ideas about the operation of the system in general, and in particular, the proper role of the transit board in its day-to-day management.
Going into the January meeting, BJCTA board member Adam Snyder — the leader of an insurgent faction that said the board’s leadership was interfering with executive director Ann August’s ability to manage the system — cast it as “do-or-die,” in terms of August’s tenure with the BJCTA. As recently as the end of the workweek prior to the called meeting that Monday, he had fully expected that a majority of the board was set to terminate August’s contract — and despaired openly of what he said would be the inevitable result of that decision.
“There’s no salvaging transit if we lose Ann,” Snyder said at the time.
On the evidence, it was easy to understand Snyder’s frustration. Since arriving as director of the long-beleaguered BJCTA in January 2013, August had been widely credited with making steady improvements in bus service, as well as for updating technology and processes to promote the safety of passengers and employees while increasing the efficiency and overall performance of the system. She also had worked to improve relations between the BJCTA and its suburban funding partners, and to engage the community in general on the benefits of making mass transit a priority in the overall transportation plan for the Birmingham region.
August’s general popularity was evident at the meeting. The meeting room was packed to overflowing, with most of the 75 or more present consisting of bus riders, other transit advocates, and employees of the bus system — all present to demonstrate their support of the director.
Unknown to almost everyone in the room, August had in fact intended to resign her position on the Friday prior to the meeting. She was talked out of it by Snyder and other board members, persuaded to hold off on any action until after the Monday meeting. But during the meeting, she pointed to numerous instances of undue interference by board members — most specifically, then-board chair Johnnye Lassiter — in executive matters ranging from personnel decisions to communications with BJCTA staff and the public. If the interference did not stop, August told the board, she would “have no choice” but to resign.
What followed was the result of a hectic weekend of discussions that involved various board members and elected officials, up to and including Birmingham Mayor William Bell. This, too, was unknown to almost all present at the meeting.
After August’s statement, the board did, in fact, take a vote — but not the one that had seemed all but assured a few days before. Instead of moving to terminate August, the board stunned the crowd by voting 6-2 in favor of a motion to remove Lassiter as chair. The board then voted to replace her with Patrick Sellers, the Jefferson County appointee to the nine-member body (Lassiter represents the city of Bessemer). Vice chair Patricia Henderson and secretary-treasurer Bacarra Mauldin remained in those positions.
The board’s action drew strong applause, with many in the crowd extolling it as a “new day” for transit. In my weekly column for Weld, I described the scene as one of “general euphoria,” and quoted the reaction of longtime transit advocate John Wright Jr. Wright, 87, who had spoken in his usual passionate manner during the meeting, beseeching the board — and everyone else within earshot — to view transit as a social justice issue. In the wake of a vote that could only be viewed at the time as pro-August, Wright (who would die in June, after a brief illness) was nothing short of jubilant.
“This is a great day for democracy!” he exclaimed. “God bless America!”
It is fair to say that Wright’s sentiment was broadly shared among those assembled. But not everyone was quite so swept up in the moment, least of all the deposed former chair. She characterized August’s complaints as “a lot of lies,” but indicated that she was willing to accept the board’s action and bide her time.
“There are consequences to every decision that is made, and there is going to be some consequences to this decision,” Lassiter said before leaving the meeting room that day.
“Just watch it.”
“I will be leaving”
Fast-forward to today, October 2015. It is a scant nine months since Lassiter’s ominously cautionary pronouncement, and Ann August is on her way out of Birmingham.
“My contract ends December 31, and I will be leaving,” August said this week. “I think the time has come for me to move on and allow the board to move the agency in the direction they want it to go.”
August’s choice of words indicates the level of tension that has remained between her and the board faction that includes Lassiter. But other than an understated acknowledgement that “at this point, I can’t really say there is a good relationship” with those board members,” August declined comment on the circumstances that led to her decision to leave Birmingham when her contract expires.
Others are less reticent. Board member Snyder said the issue that presumably led to Lassiter’s ouster earlier this year — board interference with August’s ability to do her job — has not gone away. Other knowledgeable sources say that she has become “frustrated beyond belief,” and that, much as was the case in January, the thought of her leaving has “people inside and outside” the BJCTA “scared to death about the direction transit is going.”
“Once again,” declared Snyder, “the transit system is a pawn in a political game instead of the economic priority it should be. Ann’s level of professionalism and expertise is something this system has not had, and she has been just what was needed to begin making transit work for the people of Birmingham and Jefferson County.”
“The thing people like about Ms. August,” said a BJCTA employee who asked not to be identified, “is that it has never been about her. She came to Birmingham because she wanted to help make this a better place. She wanted the bus system to really serve the public, and she wanted it to be a good place to work for everybody who has a job here. But there’s people who don’t want that, and you can only fight them for so long.
“She’s done what she can, and she can’t do it anymore. And I don’t blame her.”
The “official” beginning of the end for August — or at least its precipitating event — came at the most recent regular meeting of the BJCTA board, held on Wednesday, September 30. Tension in the room was palpable as the board moved through an agenda that included an extended discussion of renewing health insurance for the executive and administrative staff of the agency (bus drivers and other on-the-ground employees are covered through their union memberships). Board attorney Deborah Walker had to intervene in that discussion to get the board to rescind its majority approval of an item that could have left those employees temporarily without coverage, pending the board’s apparent intent to change insurance carriers.
The final item of business on the agenda was the report of the board’s nominating committee, recommending new officers for the fiscal year that began October 1. Snyder chaired the committee, on which he was joined by board members Emma Tolbert and Frank Topping. They recommended a slate in which Sellers remained as chair, with Tolbert as vice-chair and Topping as secretary-treasurer.
The vote on the subsequent motion to approve the slate was a 4-4 tie, meaning that the slate failed for lack of a majority. The four votes in favor of the slate came from the three nominating committee members — all appointees of the Birmingham City Council, which appoints five of the nine board seats — plus Hoover appointee Reginald Jeter. Sellers and Lassiter voted “no,” along with the other two Birmingham appointees, Henderson and Mauldin. Vestavia Hills appointee Andrew Edwards was absent from the meeting.
The nominating committee’s slate having failed, Sellers opened the floor for nominations to the individual officer positions. In short order — with Jeter now joining Sellers, Lassiter, Henderson and Mauldin to form a majority — Mauldin defeated Topping for secretary-treasurer, Henderson defeated Tolbert for vice chair, and Sellers defeated Snyder for chair.
With the voting completed, Mauldin began clapping, but stopped when no one on the dais or in the audience of roughly 30 joined in. “Don’t we want to applaud?” she murmured to her fellow board members. Only Snyder replied, in a voiced pitched past Mauldin and toward the corners of the room.
“I don’t applaud the status quo,” he said.
Continuing to build?
Reached by phone last Friday — three days before August told me of her decision to leave at the end of the year — newly re-elected board chair Sellers downplayed the idea that the way the board elections transpired is indicative of either problems with August or unhealthy division on the board. He pointed out that the board had chosen to keep the same leadership team in place, which he reads as a desire for stability and consistency.
“We will continue to move transit forward,” Sellers said. “We’re going to continue building on the strategic plan that is already in place. That’s redefining and redesigning routes, and continuing to make improvements to our fleet. I believe there’s always going to be ways to improve what we do. We’re in business to do business better.”
Asked why the board took the unusual step of rejecting the recommendations of its own nominating committee, Sellers stressed that he “can’t speak for other board members,” but said he found it personally distasteful that the committee nominated two of its three members to fill the officer slots. Despite the fact that the committee supported his own re-election as chair, Sellers said he voted against the slate because he “thought it was important to give the board as a whole the opportunity to speak.”
Sellers also offered an assessment of August’s job performance that, given the circumstances, was surprisingly glowing.
“She was vital in stabilizing this organization,” Sellers said. “We have come a long way from where we were when she got here to where we are now. She has been able to build good relationships with our funding partners and other community leaders. She has done things that have changed the perception of the BJCTA.”
Given such accomplishments — and the board’s desire to, in Sellers’ words, “continue building” — why wouldn’t the board be eager to extend August’s contract?
“That’s something she has to decide on,” Sellers said. “It’s up to her, if she wants to stay and how long she wants to stay. As a board, we’re doing that process now, looking at what happens if she stays and what happens if we have to move in another direction.”
In terms of the transit system’s future in general, Sellers said the board will be focused on finding ways to improve service while increasing efficiency. With so many factors, from funding sources to fuel costs to unanticipated contingencies, affecting the ability of the transit system to do its job, he said, the challenge to find cost savings wherever possible “plays into every decision we make.”
“We have to look at every resource to save money and be more efficient, both physically and fiscally, at every level of the organization,” said Sellers. “We’re talking about several things that I won’t reveal yet. There are some things that, looking around industrywide, we think could make a lot of sense for us.”
One such industrywide trend, Sellers allowed, is the outsourcing of certain — or, in some communities all — operations to private service providers. He said that the board has become aware of “some new and unique ways” of outsourcing paratransit (supplemental transportation services for people with disabilities) in particular. Asked if there are specific providers that the board is considering, Sellers said there are not, and that no formal effort to date has been made to explore the possibilities.
“Here we go again”
With Ann August’s intentions now known, Adam Snyder is “beyond exasperated” with the board members who are, he says, “glad to see Ann gone.” He declares flatly that they are derelict in their duty as public servants, simply the latest iterations of a generation of “leadership” that has perpetuated mediocrity and worse in Birmingham’s bus service.
“What have Birmingham transit boards done for the last 20-some-odd years?” Snyder asks. “Cycle through directors, interfere with daily operations, and just prove the point again and again that there is no commitment to improving the transit system for the good of our riders.
“Well, here we go again. We’ve got board members who are not here to serve. They think they are here to be served. All of this stuff with Ann, it’s not a difference of opinion about how the system should be run. It’s about politics, pettiness and patronage. The agenda is not being driven by need, it’s being driven by money.”
Snyder rejects the value of stability and consistency on the board, at least as proposed by Sellers. He sees an organization in turmoil, caught between City Hall politics and the fiscal and operational challenges of building a viable mass transit system. The solution to those challenges, he says, starts at the top, with a kind of leadership the current board has failed to provide.
“Unless our entire approach to transit changes, and unless there is a real change in leadership, we’re going to be stuck with an agency that is not equipped to serve the needs of a growing community,” Snyder says. “Among other things, all of this turmoil is demoralizing to the staff. We have people who care about our riders, about the community, and about what they can do to make the transit system better. But it’s hard to do your job when you have leadership that’s playing games with your livelihood.
“We need leaders to step up,” Snyder concludes. “We need elected officials, the business community, bus riders, environmental activists, neighborhood groups — anybody who understands why transit should be a priority, now and in the future. And we need leaders at the BJCTA who are interested in building a great system, instead of being a part of political power plays.
“Until that happens, we are going to have a second-rate transit system, and Birmingham is going to be a second-rate city.”