Port Authority board fires CEO Steve Bland

Tom Fontaine
| Friday, Feb. 1, 2013, 10:10 a.m.

The Port Authority of Allegheny County fired CEO Steve Bland on Friday after almost a year of friction between him and County Executive Rich Fitzgerald, who said the transit chief “resisted” his recommendations to improve the system.

The authority's board named Chief Financial Officer Ellen McLean as interim CEO and formed a committee to seek Bland's replacement. The board formed a new slate of officers, all of whom voted to fire him.

“We believe we needed to start afresh,” said Jeff Letwin, the chairman.

Bland did not attend the meeting and could not be reached for comment.

The board emerged from a more than half-hour executive session and voted 5-3 to remove Bland without cause. His contract ensures him of a $92,500 severance, half his annual salary. Former board Chair John A. Brooks said he opposed the move but “didn't bother” voting because he believed it wouldn't change the outcome.

“In my mind, no, it wasn't justified,” Brooks said. “He didn't do anything wrong. He just didn't agree with Rich Fitzgerald.”

Said board member Amanda Green Hawkins: “I've received nothing to demonstrate that Steve's imperfections warrant termination without a hearing. What I have witnessed has been a concerted and methodical effort to get rid of Steve.”

According to Fitzgerald, “A lot of things have not been done, not been looked at and have been resisted.”

Bland's supporters said Port Authority reduced wasteful spending, obtained labor concessions and ended poorly performing routes during his six-year tenure, marked by financial challenges and the completion of the biggest capital project in the agency's history — the $517 million North Shore Connector light-rail extension.

Yet Bland, 51, faced intense criticism from Fitzgerald, who sources said pressured Bland to resign and lined up board votes to oust him if he refused. It started publicly in spring, when Fitzgerald criticized the agency's performance after the North Shore Connector's opening.

On Friday afternoon, Fitzgerald outlined changes he wants, from converting buses to use natural gas and adding GPS so riders could track buses to removing buses from inner streets Downtown. He said Bland “resisted many” calls for change.

“We put experts in (leadership roles at county authorities) to give good advice, but at the end of the day, the policy is going to be set by my administration and county council,” Fitzgerald said, adding that he asks board members to sign undated resignation letters he could use if he disapproves of their actions.

Letwin said Bland did “an admirable job. But now the most important thing is gaining dedicated funding. In board discussions generally, we've been frustrated that we have not been able to succeed in that regard.”

Gov. Tom Corbett is expected to outline a $1.9 billion transportation plan on Tuesday.

Bland and numerous corporate and government leaders repeatedly urged state lawmakers in recent years to boost transit funding. Port Authority lost about $30 million a year in anticipated funding when the federal government shot down a proposal to impose tolls on Interstate 80 under the state's Act 44 transportation funding plan.

“His relationship with legislators, that was not very good. They often felt like they were getting criticized. As a CEO, you need to be a little bit of a politician, to show some political acumen,” Fitzgerald said.

State Sen. Jim Ferlo, D-Highland Park, said “a number of people, myself included, were none too pleased with Mr. Bland,” but Ferlo said he thought Fitzgerald should have allowed Bland to finish his contract through June 11, 2014, while the agency searched for another CEO.

Port Authority spends about $218,000 annually to retain two lobbying firms to represent its interests in Harrisburg and Washington, records show.

Fitzgerald said labor-management relations were poor during Bland's tenure.

“I respect Steve Bland, and I didn't have a problem with him professionally. He worked with the numbers he had,” said Amalgamated Transit Union Local 85 President Steve Palonis, who took office last summer.

Fitzgerald said he recommended former Pennsylvania Turnpike CEO Joseph G. Brimmeier, a Port Authority board member, for interim CEO, but the authority's board opted for McLean.

Fitzgerald and board members in his corner received “too much political pressure” over the planned Brimmeier appointment because of his history as turnpike CEO, Brooks said. The agency's debt tripled, and it became the target of at least two grand jury investigations during his tenure from 2003 to 2011. Brimmeier was the only board member not nominated for an officer post.

Fitzgerald called the public criticism of Brimmeier “unfair” and “disappointing.”

“I liked the work Joe did at the turnpike,” Fitzgerald said. “He has a level of expertise and knows what questions to ask.”

Tom Fontaine is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7847 or tfontaine@tribweb.com.

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