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NCTD Chief Answers Questions About Agency Turnover

Evening Edition

Aired 7/2/14 on KPBS Midday Edition.

NCTD Chief Answers Questions About Agency Turnover


Matthew Tucker is executive director of the North County Transit District


North County Transit District CEO Matthew Tucker speaks at a news conference in March about the Sprinter shutdown, March 2013.

The North County Transit District has gone through a major transition since Matthew Tucker was hired as executive director just more than five years ago.

News reports by KPBS media partner, inewsource, have revealed a troubled public agency that has problems with its contractors and is now seeing an unusually high turnover of its management staff.

As inewsource reports:

NCTD runs the county’s COASTER, BREEZE, SPRINTER and LIFT transit services, and uses San Diego county’s tax base to support its operations. For the past 16 months, inewsource has published a series of stories in an ongoing investigation detailing the district’s holes in security, misallocation of funding, questionable contracting, high employee turnover, lawsuits, audits and peer criticism.

Throughout inewsource’s investigation, nearly every member of NCTD’s board of directors — elected representatives from the cities of Carlsbad, Del Mar, Encinitas, Vista, Escondido, Oceanside, San Marcos and Solana Beach — has refused to be interviewed or offer comment.

Tucker addressed some of these issues in an interview with KPBS Evening Edition.

On the amount of turnover at high-level positions:

“Of the 23 employees identified (by inewsource), a significant number of them were not high-level employees whatsoever. About 37 percent of that 23 number were people that were laid off due to decisions that we made from a business point of view and the vast majority of them were also laid off due to the fact that they were being funded through grant programs that were being discontinued … going into July 1 of our new budget.”

On the how turnover could affect the agency's performance:

“Our board is very comfortable with where we are. We have never in the history of the NCTD had more experienced people in positions than we have today. I’m very happy with the skill sets of the people that we have in positions today, in fact, one of the employees that holds one of those senior positions has been with NCTD probably 25 to 30-something years, so he has the adequate experience to do the work we’re asking him to do.”

Regarding complaints from former employees:

“From the point that I was hired in December 2008, the board had set a number of priorities. One was sort of financial stability, and then the other key principals were related to reshaping our business model, which required a change in our organizational culture. So if you look at during the time period that I’ve been there, you will see that we have developed plans across all of our business areas that never existed before. We’ve updated policies; we’ve brought in in-house general counsel. What I wanted to do was create an agency that was much more responsive, that the board — through policy and procedures — could have a better idea what’s going on. The fact of the matter is we do ask lots of questions, we do ask our employees hard questions, we do look at the work they do, we do scrutinize them and if we don’t think it’s where it needs to be, we ask them to continue to work on it. I don’t apologize for that. That’s part of doing the job, being due diligent, asking tough questions and expecting people to do their best.”

On why former employees signed non-disclosure agreements:

“Those employees chose to execute a severance agreement.”

“I can talk to you 100 percent about anything about what the agency is operating and I suspect for you most of the employees that KPBS speaks to and gives them anonymous comments, most of those comments are anonymous because those employees don’t want to attach their names to it. They understand that KPBS is facilitating and supporting of an approach that doesn’t afford NCTD due process. Everyone would really love to take a cheap shot at someone without ever having anybody call and question they own performance and their own behavior. That’s really something that’s a little bit surprising for a credible organization to carry that.”

On the amount of severance pay issued:

“At the end of the day, what is the compassionate, human, fair thing to do for people who are transitioning into a pretty tough economy? So, if the argument is that we should not be providing severances to people who are leaving employment, let’s have that as a discussion point. I believe it’s the right thing to do.”

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Avatar for user 'dialyn'

dialyn | July 2, 2014 at 4:40 p.m. ― 2 years, 8 months ago

The interview this noon with Mr. Tucker was less than revealing. It isn't the interviewer's fault but he seemed determined to seem ignorant about what was going on, even though he must be well aware of the situation (since he is at the center of it). I don't buy his explanation of privileged information at all...he couldn't even address what has already been revealed to the public in a most general way. If he is that ignorant of what is going on, maybe he should be the one looking for a new job (with a handsome package of good-bye benefits, of course). Not iimpressive. Not liable to make anyone feel confident of his leadership skills. The Board of Dirctors equally unimpressive by evading questions. What happened to clear communications and transparency? What a joke.

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Avatar for user 'TuckerMustGo'

TuckerMustGo | July 2, 2014 at 8:45 p.m. ― 2 years, 8 months ago

Good for Alison St. John for pointing out that the Taxpayers Association just gave NCTD the Golden Fleece award for wasting over $3 million of taxpayer money for the shutdown of the Sprinter. Tucker arrogantly ignored Alison's question about it, as he ignored all of her probing questions.

How much damage must Tucker do before he is given his walking papers? Throw the bum out!

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Avatar for user 'jtk'

jtk | July 2, 2014 at 8:59 p.m. ― 2 years, 8 months ago

Arrogance, Corruption and Ineptitude.

Inewsource won a national award for its investigative reporting on NCTD. The Investigative Reporters and Editors said that Inewsource had found "layer upon layer of bureaucratic arrogance, corruption and ineptitude at the transit system."

Tucker's interview proves it loud and clear.

As the still photo on the top of the page says, "Why does NCTD have non-disclosure agreements?"

Tucker answered that question during the interview. He's paying taxpayer money to shut people up, in order to cover up problems at the agency.

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Avatar for user 'NCTDisTuckeredOut'

NCTDisTuckeredOut | July 3, 2014 at 7:44 a.m. ― 2 years, 8 months ago

What a buffoon. Tucker says that 37% of 23 employees were laid off. Let's calculate that surprisingly precise % from Tucker: 37% of 23 employees would be 8.51 employees. Gosh, I wonder where I can see that poor 0.51 of an employee. Remember, potential job applicants--Matt Tucker's NCTD is where careers go to die.

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Avatar for user 'fallbrookcoasterrider'

fallbrookcoasterrider | July 3, 2014 at 10:07 a.m. ― 2 years, 8 months ago

What an arrogant man! Hasn't KPBS given both Tucker and the board numerous opportunities to respond to questions and allegations? Yet they have refused to comment on them. That shows how little credibility can be given to Tucker and the board. I'm wondering why the state AG hasn't reviewed the business practices of NCTD and its board. We taxpayers need to make our voices heard in Sacramento and DEMAND a comprehensive review into NCTD's polices and procedures, and a state-lead audit into their finances.

Both the board and the administration need to be held accountable for the loss of taxpayers money. Tucker needs to be fired. If the board lacks the balls to do it, then the board needs to go to.

PEOPLE - look who's on the board! Don't continue to vote into office members that can't even run a organization. How can they effectively run your district/city/area?

Bill Horn, Don Mosier, Tony Kranz, Ed Gallo, Gary Felien, Rebecca Jones, Mike Nichols & John Aguilera - you're on notice. Do something or next election, YOU maybe out of a job. Hmmm, I don't think you get severance pay when you lose an election, do you?

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Avatar for user 'ConcernedCitizen1'

ConcernedCitizen1 | July 3, 2014 at 2:12 p.m. ― 2 years, 8 months ago

There are liars, there are damned liars, and then there's Matt Tucker.

Here are just a few of his lies.

Tucker: "...the vast majority of them [employees who have left] were also laid off due to the fact that they were being funded through grant programs that were being discontinued..." This is a complete lie! Tucker, grant funding is not confidential. Which specific grant programs are you referring to, and which employees? Tucker won't provide documentation of this wild claim, because he can't back up this fabrication.

Tucker: "We have never in the history of the NCTD had more experienced people in positions than we have today." Again, a complete fabrication! In fact, of the 18 "key contacts" listed on NCTD's website, over one-third have been with NCTD for less than a year and a half! Only one has been with NCTD for any significant length of time, like a lone standing tree in a neighborhood flattened by a destructive hurricane.

Tucker: " fact, one of the employees that holds one of those senior positions has been with NCTD probably 25 to 30-something years..." As noted, only one of the "key contacts" has been with NCTD for a significant length of time. That is poor Mike Wygant, the current Chief Operations Officer. And Mike Wygant can't be feeling too secure. Wygant is the 3rd Chief Operations Officer in less than 3 years. Tucker isn't interested in mentioning these inconvenient truths.

Tucker: "So if you look at the time period that I've been there, you will see that we have developed plans across all of our business areas that never existed before." Again, a complete lie, and a sweeping insult of the talented professionals who ran the agency for years before Tucker ever arrived. During their watch, their was no multi-million dollar shutdown of service like the Sprinter shutdown in 2013. And the 2012 FTA Triennial Review under Tucker was the worst federal review in the history of NCTD, even though Tucker spent over $100,000 in consulting fees to prepare for it.

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Avatar for user 'ConcernedCitizen1'

ConcernedCitizen1 | July 3, 2014 at 2:21 p.m. ― 2 years, 8 months ago

Two more observations.

Tucker: "Those employees chose to execute a severance agreement." Yes, employees whose positions were "eliminated" by Tucker were naturally in a vulnerable position and needed severance. But it is TUCKER who insists on non-disclosure clauses and secrecy, not the employees. In fact, this is simple blackmail by Tucker. Tucker cynically trades taxpayer-funded money in exchange for confidentiality. Cover-up, cover-up, cover-up!

Tucker: "...most of those comments are anonymous because those employees don't want to attach their names to it." A bald-faced lie, and Tucker knows it! The former employees are forced to be anonymous, because Tucker holds their severance hostage. Tucker, if you want former employees to stop being anonymous, simply release all former employees from the non-disclosure agreements you insisted on! There would be a flood of new information about Tucker, most of which has not yet been reported! But I guarantee that Tucker will not release the former employees, and thereby give up on his precious secrecy. No, he'll continue with his current practice. Force former employees to sign non-disclosure agreements in order to get severance, and then whine about how the former employees are anonymous. What a waste of taxpayer dollars for this sinister and shameful practice!

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Avatar for user 'northcountyvoter'

northcountyvoter | July 3, 2014 at 6:19 p.m. ― 2 years, 8 months ago

Tucker ignored the question about the Golden Fleece award during the interview. The San Diego County Taxpayers Association just awarded a Golden Fleece award to NCTD for wasting taxpayer dollars during the Sprinter shutdown. Here's what the award says: Due to a lack of preventative maintenance and internal oversight, the North County Transit District was forced to shut down the Sprinter to replace brakes that were wearing down too quickly. Taxpayers spent over $3 million during the shutdown while the train was sidelined--dangerously derailing the budget.

Who is responsible for this lack of oversight, which cost taxpayers millions of dollars? Do the NCTD Board members think they are accountable to the public, or do they believe they are aristocrats who can arrogantly ignore their taxpaying servants?

Board Chair Bill Horn, County of San Diego
Board Vice Chair Mark Packard, City of Carlsbad
Don Mosier, City of Del Mar
Tony Kranz, City of Encinitas
Ed Gallo, City of Escondido
Gary Felien, City of Oceanside
Rebecca Jones, City of San Marcos
Mike Nichols, City of Solana Beach
John Aguilera, City of Vista

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Avatar for user 'FormerEmployee'

FormerEmployee | July 3, 2014 at 7:23 p.m. ― 2 years, 8 months ago

Yep, the Tucker Crazy Train continues to lurch incoherently. Tucker must think that no one is intelligent enough to notice that he ignores direct questions, talks in generalities, and tries to avoid being pinned down. Just look closely at his 5 paragraphs of quotes on this page. There is virtually no content in any of those 5 paragraphs.

So here are just a few sobering statistics to help put things in context.

Remember that all of the turnover discussed in this latest story is just from the PAST SIX MONTHS ALONE! The Deputy General Manager, the Chief Operations Officer, the Deputy Chief Operations Officer, etc., etc. JUST IN SIX MONTHS! Over the past few years, the cumulative turnover is much, much higher.

In the few years since Tucker has been at NCTD, there have been:
3 Chief Operating Officers
3 Intergovernmental Affairs Officers
3 Managers of HR
3 Chiefs of Transit Enforcement
4 ADA Administrators
5 (count 'em, FIVE!) Managers of Communications and Marketing
and that is just a PARTIAL list of the organizational chaos. The list could go on and on!

Don't even try to understand the org charts, which are generally not even updated because Tucker keeps changing the structure. Employees frequently are confused about who their department reports to. The NCTD website still shows the January 6, 2014 org chart, with a bunch of departments reporting to Deputy General Manager Reed Caldwell. He's been gone since December!

Tucker plays carelessly with the lives and careers of his employees, the way a child with ADHD might play carelessly with action figures. First Tucker hires a new employee, frequently paying $25,000 or more in recruiting fees to his recruiter buddy Tony Kouneski. Then Tucker gets bored and fires the employee, requiring non-disclosure in severance agreements, to keep Tucker's misdeeds secret from the public. Then Tucker hires some more. And this chaos causes enormous waste like the Sprinter shutdown.

My severance agreement has the non-disclosure clauses. I did not want it. Tucker insisted on it. Tucker says in the interview he wanted to be "compassionate." Baloney! This was blackmail, pure and simple. That is why I, like so many others, am forced to be anonymous.

As a member of the riding public, do you feel safe knowing about this kind of organizational insanity? Is this the kind of organization you can trust with your safety, or the safety of your children?

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Avatar for user 'sadsituation'

sadsituation | July 4, 2014 at 7:18 a.m. ― 2 years, 8 months ago

I agree with all of the commenters above. I also appreciate KPBS printing out Tucker's quotes. When listening to his speech the first time, it's easy to get lulled into his lieing doubletalk. But, when reading the quotes, it shows that he was being arrogant, evasive and untruthful as always. Did you notice how he also managed to get a cheap shot in at KPBS during this interview? Yet another dumb move on his part.

I, too, am a former employee, however I left on my own when I witnessed all the chaos occurring. With a family to care for and bills to pay, had I been forced out, I think I would have taken the severance over waiting 2+ years and gambling on possibly receiving more in a lawsuit. Kudos to those who held out for 6 months of severance instead of 2 or 3 months. Tucker is so afraid of lawsuits now that I think he would give everyone at least 6 months if they push for it. As for Tucker himself, IF and when he finally leaves, I hope KPBS will post his severance agreement for all to see.

It is sadly true when one of the commenters said that "Tucker plays carelessly with the lives and careers of employees the way a child with ADHD might play carelessly with action figures." Folks -- you have to see it to believe it! But, this is definitely the case. One day you're in his favor; then the next day you're not with no reason or justification. His mood changes dangerously every day. When he decides he's done with you, that's it. There's no getting back into his A group once you've been cast aside. Funny how he hangs his hat on the ONE management employee who has been with the agency over 20 years. I believe that person started with NCTD in 1990, which would be 24 years with the agency to be exact. Sadly, this one employee has become Tucker's poster child.

A new wrinkle has developed which is a problem for both Tucker and NCTD. Since the Sprinter shutdown debacle in March 2013, Tucker has developed a bad name for himself in the transit industry that appears to be spreading nationwide. Therefore, when he goes out on interviews, he doesn't get the jobs. The Board likely feels sorry for him and keeps extending his contract. It's turned into a vicious cycle. Lots of people are on the sidelines shaking their heads in disbelief wondering when this ship will finally sink and whether Tucker will decide to go down with the ship, or leap into a lifeboat at the last minute.

It's time to get a grand jury investigation going on this sorry organization, its inept and arrogant CEO, and its clueless Board of Directors!

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Avatar for user 'Enoughisenough'

Enoughisenough | July 5, 2014 at 9:24 a.m. ― 2 years, 8 months ago

Nctd's core mission should be moving people not being a science experiment for a leader who enjoys creating drama, needless inefficient change while attempting to destroy people's careers.

There has not been a transit agency in the US with the same percentage rate of turnover of senior staff during his rein beginning in 2008! The agency is tiny, simple to run and should be focused on moving people not creating drama.

The board members agree with him and do not value any of the staff.

Every one they can run off, lay off or fire is replaced by an employee with less experience and employee paid contribution to Calpers saving the agency millions per year while the CEO and Board Chair both get 100% pension contributions paid into Calpers by the District.

Current and former contractors and consultants dread working there and have to laugh at his jokes and antics in order to be paid.

Many ex-NCTD folks and their consultants/ contractors have reached out after they have left and as a sampling group, they are all happy they are out of that dreadful place where employees and contractors are not valued, are bullied, and harassed.

I think the NCTD board deserves him as both are hopeless and both are the laughingstock of the transit industry and everyone knows it.

NCTD is a joke!

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Avatar for user 'NCTDNotPlacetoBe'

NCTDNotPlacetoBe | July 7, 2014 at 12:16 p.m. ― 2 years, 8 months ago

The bottom line does not want to be disagreed with. You make make your pitch, then he tells you how it's going to happen. He doesn't want input, he wants a yes man.

Several things are missing from the narrative on Tucker. The first is some kind of detailing of Tucker's work at other agencies, namely in Santa Clara at the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority, in Virginia at the Virginia Department of Rail and Transportation. It would probably be hard to get anyone on the record, but at least some background on what he did at those agencies would be instructive.

Second, Tucker is an axe man. His primary role in coming to NCTD was to get rid of the bus drivers and their pensions, as well as a lot of other longtime employees. That's a separate story with a separate narrative but the important thing to remember is axe men rarely make good leaders. Why, because if you can come in and get rid of people who've had good jobs for a longtime and not feel bad about doing it, you probably have the type of personality that also doesn't prevent you from using that same philosophy against people who work for you.

Tucker has remained an axe man, cutting people before they can retire on their full pension. This has happened to several longtime employees in the last year. Only 2 people I know of have retired out of NCTD in the last 2-3 years. Several people managed to get the 2% at 5 years retirement, but I'm sure he's watching that as well.

So why would you expect anything different from Tucker? Blaming other people for his failures in oversight is a hallmark of his tenure at NCTD. He spent the whole weekend of the Sprinter shutdown blaming contractors and anyone else available instead of leading. The staff did a great job stepping into the breach during this time. If it wasn't for the then head of safety, I'm not sure they could have gotten the Sprinter online that quickly. Tucker had no role in that, it was all the head of safety.

In short, Tucker has no leadership skills, especially with managers. A lot of managers run wild until it gets bad enough that Tucker has to axe them. On the other side of the coin, he's gotten rid of several managers like the head of administration for refusing to get rid of employees or disagreeing with him at the wrong time.

I'd love to know the grant program employees that were let go because the program was ending. The only one I could make out via the employee list was Mobility Management, which did have a limited run. Unfortunately, Bill Horn is Tucker's main supporter and he was just re-elected. Horn, Mark Packard and Mark Gallo are the only current board members with a lot of tenure. They are "in" with Tucker, so there's not point contacting them. Your only hope is probably Aguilera in Vista and Kranz in Encinitas. Contact these two even if you don't live in those cities and demand accountability on the turnover at NCTD..

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