Sound Transit board members say they’ve chosen a well-qualified leader to succeed CEO Peter Rogoff this summer, but wouldn’t name on Thursday their pick to steer the nation’s largest public transit expansion program.
Members of the transit board’s CEO Search Committee identified this person only as “Candidate A,” after a closed-door executive session Thursday morning. Three finalists made it to the final round of online interviews this week, from a field of 90.
The next step is to conduct contract talks before a final vote scheduled June 23, for all 18 board members to approve the package. The advertised salary is between $300,000 and $400,000 per year.
Sound Transit chose not to reveal the front-runner’s name after board member Snohomish County Executive Dave Somers asked at the start of Thursday’s session if it would cause problems to identify the choice before that person had been contacted to accept the job.
Board Chair Kent Keel, a University Place council member, didn’t say how soon he will disclose the nominee. “We need to just hold the name in confidence for a bit longer. We need to move forward with a couple issues in contract negotiations.”
The vote for “Candidate A” prompted Kathy George, a board member at the Washington Coalition for Open Government, to comment: “This process raises a very serious question about whether a final decision was made in a closed meeting. It sounds like Sound Transit has decided to hire Candidate A. Final decisions are supposed to be made in an open public meeting.”
If anything, this year’s process is slightly more transparent than in November 2015, when then-Chair Dow Constantine, the King County executive, announced the selection of Rogoff, a former chief of the Federal Transit Administration, only one day before the formal board vote by all 18 members.
In some local cases, such as Seattle police chief and King County sheriff selections, three finalists were named and public feedback encouraged.
Sound Transit spokesperson Geoff Patrick said the staff needs to coordinate the timing of a news release with Keel, sometime before June 23.
The next CEO will have a huge mission with resources to match. Sound Transit collects about $3 billion per year from voter-approved taxes and federal grants. It has earned the nation’s best credit rating. And there’s the opportunity to boost ridership, aided by new U District, Roosevelt and Northgate stations that opened last October.
Sound Transit 3, approved by voters in 2016 under Rogoff’s watch, is still near the starting line. If completed, the network could carry 750,000 daily passengers, mainly over 116 miles of light-rail tracks, a length similar to metro Washington, D.C.’s subways.
“If you’re looking to make an impact and help shape the future of transportation, help us make history,” a recruiting brochure for the job beckoned.
The new leader is stepping into crises that have damaged Sound Transit’s reputation with travelers. The 33-year-old downtown station escalators and elevators, formerly managed by King County Metro Transit, frequently fail and might not be fully replaced for nine years. Elected officials let security dwindle so far that it is not unusual for fentanyl to be smoked openly on trains and in stations. In March, a random attacker threw a nurse down a station stairway. Next month, riders will be delayed by tile repair at Columbia City Station that reduces mainline service to 20-minute frequency.
Light-rail ridership is bouncing back from the pandemic, but only 89,400 passengers per weekday rode all Sound Transit services in March, or 57% of March 2019 counts.
The recruiting pitch and interviews focused largely on “soft skills,” to lead 1,400 employees and to navigate agreements with dozens of governments. Rogoff was nearly fired in 2018 after employees complained about his abrasive style, which he improved with help from executive coaching.
Rogoff’s final day was May 31, more than six years after he was recruited in late 2015. He spent his first year preparing ST3, a winning 2016 ballot measure that increased property, car-tab and sales taxes to fund a massive set of transit extensions. Rogoff secured $2 billion in FTA grants for Lynnwood and Federal Way lines due to open in 2024, along with low-cost loans for the 2024 Redmond line and others. He plans to continue living in Seattle and hasn’t announced any career moves.
Sound Transit 3 is an estimated $6.5 billion short before 11 of the 12 new voter-approved rail and bus corridors break ground. The whole finance plan from 2017-46 has swelled to $142 billion.
Of the 90 applicants for the CEO position, 14 were considered highly qualified, according to Keel.
Evaluations took place behind closed doors. The state’s Open Meetings Act allows agencies that leeway to evaluate applicants’ qualifications. The search was done by CPS-HR of Sacramento, under a $200,000 contract and strict confidentiality.
Some people might hesitate to apply if their job hunting could be revealed to current employers, Patrick said.
The agency gave special access to several transit interest groups and “partner agencies,” such as local governments, during a round of video interviews Tuesday, to meet three finalists. They along with transit board members signed nondisclosure agreements, according to several participants.
“It’s unseemly for a public agency to require nondisclosure agreements,” said George, of the open government coalition, “especially for something as important as hiring a CEO. After all, isn’t the general public the biggest ‘stakeholder’?”
Patrick said the process was Keel’s way to broaden community involvement. “You can’t have a conversation with the whole region,” Patrick said. Sound Transit executives and employee groups joined the Tuesday sessions, for a total of 48 attendees plus five board members, he said.