Port Authority of Allegheny County CEO McLean battle-tested

| Monday, Feb. 17, 2014, 11:09 p.m.

New Port Authority of Allegheny County CEO Ellen McLean is no stranger to politics.

During her six years as Pittsburgh's chief financial officer under former Mayor Tom Murphy, McLean sparred with City Council and other officials in tumultuous financial times but built relationships to help advance reforms.

“Pittsburgh needed a change. Our finances were based on a city that didn't exist anymore,” Murphy said. “We went through a huge fight, and Ellen was part of that, to put the city in Act 47 (state financial oversight). She was a major player in the city's financial reform.

“Now with the Port Authority, it's the same kind of thing — how to become a more modern, responsive transit agency.”

The Port Authority board of directors unanimously voted to hire McLean, 60, of Shadyside last month, giving her a three-year contract worth at least $215,000 annually. She is the first woman to lead the agency.

McLean took over as interim CEO in February 2013 when the board fired CEO Steve Bland at the urging of County Executive Rich Fitzgerald. She had been the agency's chief financial officer since 2010.

She said her financial experience is a plus, even if it means she doesn't come from a pure transit background.

“We have a chief operating officer who runs the transit agency in terms of the trains and the buses and maintenance, and he's extraordinary. My job here is to come up with a strategic vision and to manage the organization with fiscally sound principles and encourage all the talented staff to do what they do well,” McLean said from her third-floor office in the Heinz 57 Center, Downtown.

Transit experts said the backgrounds of top managers at transit agencies can vary.

“There's a lot of different paths to the head position and they may not come through operations — there's also finance and engineering backgrounds,” said Rose Sheriden, vice president of the American Public Transportation Association in Washington.

Sheriden pointed to Joseph Casey, who served as Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority's chief financial officer before becoming agency chief in 2008. Sheriden's organization honored SEPTA with its Outstanding Public Transportation System Achievement Award in 2012.

“Having a good feel for finances of an organization is important,” Sheriden said.

McLean's time with the city did not make everyone an admirer. State Sen. Jim Ferlo, D-Highland Park, who was a City Council member during part of McLean's tenure, prompted several public disagreements between them.

Ferlo voted against her confirmation in 1999. He declined to comment for this story.

Former Council President Gene Ricciardi, now a district judge, said McLean was willing to listen, even when a Murphy proposal was voted down.

“There were times she was not successful. Sometimes we voted no, but she didn't take anything personally,” Ricciardi said.

Fitzgerald said part of the reason he pushed for McLean was her ability to build strong relationships with Harrisburg leaders, particularly in lobbying for the state transportation bill that passed in November. It will funnel $557 million in state funds to Port Authority through fiscal year 2019.

Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa, D-Forest Hills, said McLean's relationship with legislators is an improvement over Bland.

“There's no question that her interaction with Harrisburg has been more open,” he said.

Bobby Kerlik is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7886 or bkerlik@tribweb.com.

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