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NCTD Chief Answers Questions About Agency TurnoverNCTD Chief Answers Questions About Agency Turnover

July 2, 2014 1:08 p.m.

NCTD Chief Answers Questions About Agency Turnover


Matthew Tucker is executive director of the North County Transit District

Related Story: NCTD Chief Answers Questions About Agency Turnover


This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

ALISON ST. JOHN: The North County Transit District has gone through a major transition since Matthew Tucker was hired as an executive director, just over five years ago. The public could not fail to notice that the SprinterLight light rail train had to be close down for several weeks last spring due to brake problems. Investigations by inewsource has revealed a troubled public agency that has had problems with its contractors, and is now seeing in unusually high turnover of management staff. NCTD has refused to respond to inewsource requests for information, and has bound current and former employees with confidentiality agreements that penalize them for speaking with press. Now, however, we have Executive Director Matt Tucker, he is here so we have the chance to ask him questions directly. Thank you for joining us, Mister Tucker.

MATT TUCKER: Thank you for having me, Alison.

ALISON ST. JOHN: Okay, so you were hired in the first place to cut budgets in North County Transit District. The agency was facing an $80 million deficit over the next five years when he began back in 2009. He started that by outsourcing a lot of the operation starting with bus drivers, about 400 bus drivers were outsourced. Now, inewsource reports that about twenty high-level managers or employees have either left or been laid off since January. For an agency with about only 127 employees, that suggests some problems. How can you expect to oversee private contractors if so many of your management is leaving?

MATT TUCKER: I guess, Alison, let me reset a little bit. When I was hired back in December 2008, the agency, like most public and private agencies, was really the grips of a downturn in the economy, which we all referred to as the Great Recession. I was not hired to cut the budget, I was hired to help restore fiscal sanity within the organization because again, as you said, we were facing an $80 million budget deficit, when our annual budget is under $100 million.

ALISON ST. JOHN: Is there any way of doing that, other than cutting the budget?

MATT TUCKER: It was not about cutting the budget, is about looking at our existing business model. I think one of the things that is important, having a financial problem can happen to any public agency dependent upon tax revenue. In the case of NCTD, some of the financial issues worked really symptoms of larger organizational issues and the fact that the agency had grown from a mom-and-pop agency and had taken on a lot of responsibilities that were pretty much new to it. NCTD is a very unique agency. We are one of the four agencies in the United States that operates hybrid rail. We are one of twenty-five agencies in the country to operate commuter rail, and we are the eighty-fifth largest bus system in the country.

ALISON ST. JOHN: So what does that actually mean? Does that mean you have a wider variety to manage?

MATT TUCKER: A wider variety requiring a higher level of experience, detailed business processes, and really having the financial capacity to comply with all of the regulatory requirements that go with operating all of those services.

ALISON ST. JOHN: So seeing so many high-level positions leave, laid off, or quitting the last six months, including the chief operations officer, the chief of safety, chief of transit enforcement, the deputy general manager, the manager of marketing, among others. That suggests that there are some problems.

MATT TUCKER: Let's walk that back, and talk about it step-by-step. First, our fiscal year just started July 1. That is the beginning of our budget year. If you look at how we plan for our budgets on an annual basis, we make business decisions on the way. Those business decisions drive things that have to take place prior to our budget. The most recent inewsource report of a mass exodus was about 21 to 23 employees that had left the district. Let me give you a quick breakdown off of the top of my head. I may be rounding a little bit. About 40% of those were people who decided to move on or retire. 37% were due to layoff, and about 15% were due to people unable to perform the job. These were not all high-level additions. If you were to ask me in terms of the people who would report directly to me, do I have any vacancies, absolutely not. We do not have any vacancies in terms of folks who report directly to me. Within the group of people who were laid off, a large group of those people were people associated with the County, grant programs, or a funding grant program that was provided through SANDAG, where the program was being ended. As a result of the funding no longer being there, the positions were going away.

ALISON ST. JOHN: But it does sound like it is not necessarily about saving money. These severance packages were quite hefty, they cost $300,000. And some of them were actually continue to be paid months after they were laid off. I think outsourcing bus drivers could be accepted, a lot of money could be saved, regardless of the consequences. But, this seems to be a very costly way of going about it.

MATT TUCKER: Let's talk about it again in a couple of different ways. First in terms of outsourcing our bus operation. I always want to make sure people understand the context. When we privatized our bus system, we negotiated that with labor union. The reason that we were successful in negotiating this, was because they saw the same math that we saw. If we didn't do something different, 50% of those employees would have lost their jobs. We looked at it from a practical point of view. I would much rather people have jobs and be able to take care of their families.

ALISON ST. JOHN: I think a lot of agencies have found that outsourcing is a way of balancing the budget.

MATT TUCKER: We provided services to those employees as well, because we wanted them to transition.

ALISON ST. JOHN: The question now is the shakeup and management over the period of six months. You need good management to oversee private contractors.

MATT TUCKER: Actually, while this. Maybe six months in terms of the effects, we managed step-by-step all of the transition that were taking place. Keep in mind, some people decided to move on to other jobs. There is not much we can do when someone decides they want to move on, other than to replace the position.

ALISON ST. JOHN: Maybe I should jump to an issue that inewsource discovered when talking to some sources, that your management style is an issue with people who left. I wanted to ask you, do you see a connection to your management style with the number of people leaving?

MATT TUCKER: No. It's hard to respond to comments from anonymous people. In your introduction, you mentioned that these people have severance agreements, let's talk about that. You give people severance agreements because you want people to be able to successfully transition. You want to minimize impact to their families. As the Executive Director, I am very mindful. Anytime a business relationship does not work, I do think that the employee and the family of those employees. I think giving people a reasonable severance is the right thing to do. In terms of trying to respond to people who signed agreements that said that they would do certain things and then they in turn did not live up to those agreements, I do not know how I'm expected to do that without being able to be given a specific name, and the ability to respond. Those employees do have privacy rights that we all should respect.

ALISON ST. JOHN: The name is a problem because anybody who gets their name would lose severance packages. There are no fees for speaking. I do want to mention that there are various other publications that have given out severance packages with confidentiality agreements, but far fewer than the North County Transit District. MTS, the Metropolitan transit agency has over 1500 employees and had ten severance agreements in the past year. SANDAG has 298 employees and has had to severance agreements. The number that you have is so much higher than any other public agency. The public wants to know, what do you have to hide?

MATT TUCKER: Alison, from a practical point of view, I don't know what base number you are talking from, because the twenty-three employees identified in the list of folks who have left included varying levels of employees. When we talk about the individuals focused solely on direct employees who left, employees who reported to me who left, that is a small group of people that we are talking about. From a practical point of view I don't know how to respond - -

ALISON ST. JOHN: Thirteen people, I believe.

MATT TUCKER: I don't think I have thirteen.

ALISON ST. JOHN: The question is, what is it that you do not want them to tell the media?

MATT TUCKER: These are standard agreements. Let's flip that around. They signed an agreement that said they would abide by certain things. They did not have to sign the agreement. Now, suppose I entered into an agreement with you, and I violated that agreement, would you view me as trustworthy?

ALISON ST. JOHN: They were given the option of not signing the agreement, but then they would not have gotten the severance package, the incentive is there.

MATT TUCKER: Alison, when you agreed that is an appropriate choice in decision-making, knowing that NCTD, I do not have the capability to talk about what may be in an employee's personnel record.

ALISON ST. JOHN: We have large number of people fired and told they could not speak with the media, I wanted to quote something that you said back in 2009 - -

MATT TUCKER: Can I get a little bit of clarification?

ALISON ST. JOHN: Go ahead.

MATT TUCKER: You said that there are large number of people fired, I don't know about that number.

ALISON ST. JOHN: My understanding is that there is 21 to 22 that were laid off or left. You are making a distinction between being laid off?

MATT TUCKER: There were people who left the agency, 48% of them left, 37% of them were laid off due to business change, decisions that we made.

ALISON ST. JOHN: I accept your distinction there, that's fine. When you were hired, you were quoted as saying what we're looking at has to be something that you need to discuss in an open, transparent way. This is a direct quote. This is not about secrecy, about incrementing something at the expense of the employees, we need to make change. I wonder, do you feel that you have changed your attitude about secrecy and transparency?

MATT TUCKER: No ma'am, absolutely, I have not. We have been very transparent, in fact most of the information that is reported about things that need improvement come from internal audits and reviews that I have initiated for the agency. Keep in mind from a personal point of view, we're not able to go public and talk about the circumstances of an employees tenure at NCTD. Any discussion that occurs is going to be a one-sided discussion for which everyone knows that we cannot respond.

ALISON ST. JOHN: This is a public agency funded with public money, and none of the board members, or almost all of the board members have declined requests for interviews. You have declined requests to speak with inewsource, you have refused to provide documents that have been requested. Now employees both current and former are being told that they cannot speak. So what is it that the public is supposed to think?

MATT TUCKER: I have a great deal of respect for you, and I know that is what has been reported, that is the furthest thing from the truth. Every single request that has been put forth to NCTD, we have responded to consistent with the requirements of the law. It is just factually incorrect to say that we have not been responsive.

ALISON ST. JOHN: Under pressure from the attorneys, you did provide the documents.

MATT TUCKER: No, no, what you are referring to is one case which is under dispute related to personnel record information that inewsource wants to have. We take a strong position that even if you work for a public or private agency, you have a right to privacy. If we start giving you that information, what about your medical information, Alison? Can I have your medical information? So that I can post it out on the web?

ALISON ST. JOHN: Sure. I think inewsource brought in an attorney on a couple of occasions, and in the end you did provide the documents.

MATT TUCKER: No we did not, those documents are actually under dispute. Inewsource has sued the Transit District, because they want to gain access to information that is within people's personnel files.

ALISON ST. JOHN: I believe, for example, your resume was released. Which is one of the documents that they were requesting.

MATT TUCKER: Well, my resume was already publicly available. If you really want to think about what happened after my resume was released, from a personal perspective, what it was used to do was to go from agency to agency to beg people to say something negative about me.

ALISON ST. JOHN: I have to say that inewsource is not the only agency that has some doubts about what is happening at the North County Transit District. Last month, the San Diego County Taxpayers Association gave NCTD it's Golden Fleece Award, for the sprinter shutdown, for wasteful, inefficient use of taxpayer dollars. That is enough to raise concern with the public, and a need for more transparency. Instead, it appears that you crackdown on information.

MATT TUCKER: Again, I would disagree. Keep in mind, we also have won the Watchdog Award for efficiency in terms of taxpayers prior to station. The sprinter shutdown, I make no bones about it, we own the fact that the sprinter was shut down, there were some significant issues that occurred. Those were issues were already attempting to address, as part of the big richer, the major organizational culture changes taking place at NCTD.

ALISON ST. JOHN: Right, we just have one minute left. I think this is the crux of the issue, the major culture change, is that transition happening effectively? We had some comments from Richard Katz, former chairman of the Los Angeles Metrolink, who said that he would be troubled is a board member if you saw the amount of turnover happening at his agency which has been happening at NCTD. Have you get a replacement for all of these years of experience?

MATT TUCKER: I will answer that in two ways. First, NCTD has a five-year balanced budget. We are approaching record ridership high. We have lowered our fares copy have added service. Compare that against most systems, including Metrolink, and see how that stacks up.

ALISON ST. JOHN: So why would you be so concerned about employees, or board members, or yourself responding to interviews and providing documentation?

MATT TUCKER: But again, what you are asking me is an abstract. Do I have the capability to talk about an individual employee? The board, for example, has been briefed on individual employees. The public is never going to be privileged to hear those discussions, but the board has been well-informed of those matters. The board knows what is happening day-to-day at the agency.

ALISON ST. JOHN: So for the general public who is aware of the fact that the transit that they are using on a daily basis is outsourced, a lot of cases, because that is the way that you can balance the budget, and looks at the management of NCTD, which more than twenty out of 127 employees have left. Is their expertise to maintain a safe and reliable transit system?

MATT TUCKER: NCTD is at the best place that I have seen it since I've been there. I've never been so proud of an organization. Where we're going is going to add significant more value for taxpayers and for the riding public. I feel really good about the quality of people that we have hired, and I feel really good that we have reached a point in our transition in organizational culture change that will allow us to continue to progress in a very strong and positive way.

ALISON ST. JOHN: Well thank you so much for coming in, and of course we can rest assured that people will still be keeping an eye on the agency. We really appreciate you coming in to answer our questions.

MATT TUCKER: Thank you Alison.

ALISON ST. JOHN: That is Matt Tucker, Executive Director of the North County Transit District.