Blair Loses Transit Job - Buses Under New Management
by Leslee Kulba
ASHEVILLE – July 1 – Effective today, Asheville Transit is under new management, and not everybody is happy.
At city council’s last two formal meetings, Mike Fryar, who recently was primaried-out in his run for a seat on the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners, tried to raise awareness about problems he sees with the way the city is overseeing its transit operations.
Fryar produced a letter from the city’s former transit management company, Professional Transit Management (PTM), dated April 1, 2008. It alleged, “very serious concerns regarding the integrity and discrepancies in the city’s procurement process.” The city had conducted an RFP process. Three companies responded, and McDonald Transit Associates was ranked first.
In a letter dated April 14, PTM questioned how the city could forego the interview process to rank an unknown general manager higher than PTM’s then-serving manager, “a known entity, with over 30 years of experience with Asheville Transit, a lifelong Asheville resident, and one whom you have stated more than once is doing a ‘great’ job.”
PTM also questioned the city’s failure to adhere to timelines and the roundabout manner in which it learned the city would not be renewing its contract. Interim Transit Director Mariate Echeverry replied that the delays were introduced due to changes in the directorship of the city’s oversight department. The perception that the city is not clearly communicating its intentions persists. Former Manager Lonnie Blair learned he did not have a job from the telecast of the city council meeting. His secretary, Pam Stewart, who had been with the transit department for 22 years, quit recently, citing concerns that she might be subject to a similar surprise as one reason.
In the end, the city decided to award the management contract to First Transit, which was ranked third of the three candidates. First told the city it would retain all employees except for the general manager, Blair.
A Personal Issue –
Transit workers in North Carolina are unionized and therefore prohibited from dealing directly with municipal staff. Still, when Fryar addressed council the second time, nine members of the transit staff stayed well after 10:00pm to raise awareness that they felt something was wrong. A number of mechanics, not in uniform, were also present. More had trickled out of the chambers as the meeting stretched late into the evening.
Vice Mayor Jan Davis and Councilman Dr. Carl Mumpower advocated having the city look into why so many people would be concerned enough to stay up so late. Mayor Terry Bellamy, with access to more information than the public had, judged the matter to be a personal issue.
Fryar’s admiration and respect for Blair are unmistakable, yet he only met Blair three months ago on a fact-finding mission. Fryar explains that neither Department Director Cathy Ball, nor Echeverry could give him the answers he was seeking. Blair had everything at his fingertips. Fryar praises Blair for working his way up through the system over thirty-five years.
Blair could see ways the department could be run more efficiently, but nobody from the city ever asked his advice. Instead, the city continues to contract with outside firms for transit studies.
Blair would ride the buses in plain clothes to see what was actually going on. When a bus broke down during Asheville’s 90-day fare-free program and had to be hauled out of town for repairs, Blair stayed with it overnight to bring it back as soon as possible. Blair wanted to shut down transit to public housing at 8:30pm because ridership afterwards was almost exclusively drug dealers not wanting to get their cars confiscated. Blair kept track of how many people used the system and how they paid. If he had been asked, he would have cut enough routes to get rid of four drivers. Asked if it was not merciless to eliminate jobs, Blair responded that jobs needed to have meaning.
The city has decided to hire more salaried office staff, whereas veterans with the department would advise cuts there also.
Interesting Decisions –
One reason Fryar was moved to action was the dedication of two city buses to run a special route to and from the bus station on Coxe Avenue to UNCA for the Michelle Obama appearance. According to statistics produced by Fryar, the buses served about forty people and covered 162 miles over a ten hour period. Fryar said private bus companies were not even approached for quotes. One company told Fryar they would charge about $750 for that kind of service.
Fryar told the city in a letter dated May 13, “This was a ticketed Obama supporter event. It was not open to the public. . . You provided a service for a campaign, and it should be handled as an in-kind contribution.” Whereas the city assisted supporters of one hopeful seeking to win the Democratic presidential primary when his spouse came to town, the city gave nothing when the spouse of the other candidate, and the candidate herself, Hillary Clinton, visited.
Worse, Fryar said Blair found out he needed to get two buses ready for the event at 2:00pm on May 2; two and a half hours before the event. Ball also was given only hours notice. Fryar said the whole matter was arranged between Echeverry and Yuri Koslen. Koslen serves as the transit planner for UNCA and has a seat on the city’s transit board. He was also Bryan Freeborn’s campaign manager. Fryar sees the city allowing Koslen to be the de-facto decision maker for its transit program, paying more attention to appearances than nuts and bolts operations.
Fryar complained that UNCA, the Grove Park Inn, and Greenlife have special arrangements with the city. Their employees can ride the bus for free, and the city bills them 49 cents per trip. Normal fares are $1.00. Fryar considers this to be the same as giving federal funds to businesses. Four buses an hour run to UNCA; only one runs to AB Tech. Since 2007, ridership on the UNCA bus has been around 1-2 passengers per hour.
State and federal grants for transit totaled $1,840,401 last year. The city further subsidized transit with $1,275,565 from the general fund, $248,116 from parking revenues, and $327,000 from motor vehicle license fees. Fare collection only accounted for $796,755 of the system’s $4,969,837 in revenue. Next year, expenditures are expected to be up to $5,395,260.
The 90-day fare-free program was considered by many to be a fiasco. Four transmissions were blown at a cost of $6000 each. Former Transit Director Bruce Black, with all the political correctness he could muster, told council in a public hearing, “You can endure anything for ninety days.” Fryar says Blair recalls not having enough Lysol to get the fleas off the buses.
Fryar also questioned the city’s decision to by hybrid buses, and was told by those over Blair that they essentially had not evaluated options. Fryar has more complaints that he currently does not want to make public. “I don’t dislike transit. I don’t want to prevent poor people from riding buses. I just don’t like inefficiency.”
The City’s Response –
Members of city council technically have no oversight of personnel matters. They appoint a city manager to appoint staff for that purpose. City Manager Gary Jackson said he had spoken with Stewart after she had terminated her contract with PTM, but did not get into details publicly. Jackson said his door is open 24-7 to receive complaints from and about city staff and operations. Councilwoman Holly Jones suggested there might be a more appropriate forum for airing grievances about city staff than at a public meeting.
In a letter to members of council dated June 27, Jackson referenced a follow-up meeting he had held with Blair and executives with PTM. “The meeting clarified that the parent company and Mr. Blair have no issues with the ongoing efforts to communicate with the employees, Mr. Blair or the parent company's execs. The transition, including efforts to inform employees about the transition in operations and in administration of benefits is being handled smoothly. The management execs understandably continue to express disappointment with losing the business, but promise to act with class going forward.”
Leslee Kulba is a Tribune Staff Writer.