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Port Authority CEO Bland could be on way out

| Friday, Jan. 25, 2013, 7:28 a.m.
Port Authority CEO Steve Bland speaks at the authority's board meeting Downtown at the Port Authority's headquarters Friday, Jan. 27, 2012. Bland was fired Friday, Feb. 1, 2013. James Knox | Pittsburgh Tribune-Review
Port Authority spokesman Jim Ritchie tells the media that the regular monthly executive board meeting set for Friday January 25, 2013 has been rescheduled. James Knox | Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

Steve Bland's days as CEO of the Port Authority of Allegheny County appear to be numbered as a result of pressure from County Executive Rich Fitzgerald, sources said.

Bland's six-year tenure came close to ending Friday morning, but Port Authority Chairman John A. Brooks said he decided to postpone the board's scheduled meeting for a week.

“I wanted to prolong this so we could come to a proper resolution,” Brooks said, declining to comment further.

Brooks, who has praised Bland's work often, said board members agreed to the postponement.

An authority staffer announced the delay to a crowded boardroom 25 minutes after the meeting was scheduled to start. Board members and Bland never appeared publicly.

Board members also agreed not to comment publicly on the issue, Brooks said.

Neither Fitzgerald nor Bland returned calls.

Sources said Fitzgerald has lined up enough members of the nine-person board to fire Bland if he doesn't resign.

Bland could get at least $92,500 if he's ousted, thanks to a three-year contract that took effect June 12, 2011. The contract allows the Port Authority to terminate the agreement at any time as long as Bland receives about half of his annual salary. Bland earns $185,000 a year.

Port Authority operates independently of the county, but the county executive appoints board members and signs off on county funding. That gives the county's top elected official considerable clout.

Fitzgerald has appointed four people to the board since taking office a year ago. The five other members are holdovers.

Bland would become at least the 12th high-ranking official from a county department or county-related agency to resign or be fired since Fitzgerald took office.

On Thursday night, some board members expressed mixed emotions on Bland's possible exit.

“It's a real dilemma for me. I'm not sure how I would vote. Steve has done a hell of a job in the six years he's been here, but I was appointed by the county executive and county council, so I also have a responsibility to make a decision based on that, as far as loyalty goes,” board member John Tague said.

In recent one-on-one meetings, Tague said Fitzgerald provided “a very long list of reasons” why he was dissatisfied with Bland. Tague declined to offer specifics.

Fitzgerald publicly criticized the agency in the spring over driver shortages that led to widespread delays, vowing changes would be made at the agency if operations didn't improve. He later directed the agency to eliminate T stops to speed up service and to find ways to improve fare collection.

His administration took a central role in contract talks between the Port Authority and its largest labor union and helped to broker a state bailout that prevented 35 percent service cuts.

“I've spent 10 years trying to get on this board to be a voice for the disability community. I didn't want to be sucked into politics,” said Tague, who has muscular dystrophy and uses a wheelchair.

Board member and Allegheny County Councilwoman Amanda Green Hawkins supported Bland.

“Steve has always been, from what I can see, very honest and forthcoming with providing information to the board, and he has great knowledge about transit and is well-respected around the country,” she said, noting he was a finalist last year for top transit posts in Atlanta and Jacksonville, Fla.

Board member Marvis Rainey described Bland's work as “exemplary” and said she would oppose any motion to force him out.

Rainey questioned the timing of any bid to oust Bland.

“To even present any hint of volatility within the agency to Harrisburg is a bad move,” she said, noting the agency is relying on a state bailout to get through the rest of the fiscal year and hopes to secure increased state funding in years to come in Gov. Tom Corbett's transportation funding package, to be announced Feb. 5.

Corbett's office would not comment.

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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