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Managers Continue To Leave North County Transit District, Severance Adds Up

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.

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Aired 6/9/14

At least 20 high-level managers and employees at the North County Transit District have left the agency since Jan. 1, continuing an exodus that began more than a year ago.

At least 20 high-level managers and employees at the North County Transit District have left the agency since Jan. 1, continuing an exodus that began more than a year ago.

All told, the recent departures cost the district $299,489 in severance payouts, according to district records. That amount does not include the costs of rehiring and retraining replacements.

Among those inewsource confirmed have recently left are the chief operations officer, the chief of safety, the chief of transit enforcement, the deputy general manager, the manager of marketing, the director of the Project Management Office and Capital Budget, and the project manager for the district’s $87 million Positive Train Control program.

Other departures include senior contract administrators, civil engineers, grants managers, community affairs supervisors and coordinators.

NCTD would not comment on the turnover. Rather, an email from its CEO, Matthew Tucker, stated that the agency “strongly believes in the right of privacy for both our current and former employees” and doesn’t believe it’s “good business practice” to get into specifics about those who have left.

The agency also wouldn’t confirm who has left. inewsource pieced that together through severance agreements and interviews with former employees.

'Mistakes will be made'

Richard Katz, a former LA Metrolink chairman and veteran chairman of the Assembly Transportation Committee, has been critical of NCTD operations in the past.

The turnover now — as it was then — is a concern, Katz said.

“It would be very troubling to me as a board member to see that happening at my agency,” he said.

“Who’s training the new folks that are coming in?” Katz said. “Unless they’re being replaced by similar seniority-level people — which I don’t believe they are — you have to wonder about the training that’s taking place, the operations — how they’re running, what’s happening with the safety culture there.”

The safety culture was just one of many points that the district’s former chief technology officer, Angela Miller, warned about in her resignation letter to NCTD’s board of directors in 2012. In it, she described the climate inside the Oceanside headquarters:

“High personnel turnover led in my opinion to instability, lack of transit experience, a vacuum of basic understanding of federal requirements, dissension and contention among colleagues, and disruption to the organization. I believe the morale of the organization is at an all-time low. The climate encourages the behavior I referenced above, and unchecked will continue to erode the District.”

The confidential resignation letter was leaked to inewsource last year. Miller also wrote,

“I have been vocal to the internal organization about safety and security risks I believe now face the agency as a direct result of this attrition. Eventually, mistakes will be made.”

“I fear for the long-term viability of the agency if course-correction does not occur,” she said.

Anonymous comments

inewsource asked an NCTD board member, Vista Deputy Mayor John Aguilera, to react to comments from other former NCTD managers — about their experiences inside his agency.

Aguilera instead passed the request up to Tucker, who declined to comment on behalf of NCTD and the board of directors.

“NCTD also does not believe that it is prudent to respond to anonymous comments,” Tucker wrote.

NCTD’s severance agreements warn departing employees about discussing district business:

Yet off-the-record, and for more than a year, many former workers have informed inewsource’s reporting, leading to documents and other primary sources of information that have formed the basis for more than 30 stories over the past year about management and safety issues.

Two of those former managers wished to detail their concerns to Aguilera for his reaction. But because that didn’t work as planned, they are allowing their statements to be published anonymously. inewsource decided to use the information because it’s in the public interest, but agreed not to quote the sources by name because of legal repercussions they could face.

Two veterans

One former higher-up at NCTD wrote to inewsource about the last year in the district:

“A definite lack of trust for all employees and their ability became apparent. General Counsel was brought in. We were writing scopes of work for outside entities to perform tasks that were based in work that we had been hired to perform for the agency. All documents had to be reviewed at the General Counsel level. This became gridlock for most departments. Simple documents could not make it through the constant review process. Some of us were told our performance was declining. Everything was in a state of flux.”

Another former employee, high up on the chain of command, was one of many who placed the blame squarely on NCTD’s CEO:

“It has nothing to do with the riding public anymore, or the long term or short term interest of the agency. It’s all about what makes him look good.”

“There is no morale. You don’t need to be a genius to see that when you fire people on a weekly and biweekly basis, you’re not going to have continuity, you’re not going to have teamwork.”

Katz, from LA, said, “For that number from one railroad to leave, particularly in those senior positions — there’s something going on with the railroad that they’re uncomfortable with, or that doesn’t make sense to them, that they feel they can’t change.”

A little more than a year ago, inewsource wrote about NCTD’s upper-management exodus that — at the time — was just beginning.

inewsource reported:

“Twenty-one of the top 25 senior level employees have left NCTD since Matthew Tucker, once head of transportation for the state of Virginia, took over as CEO in 2009. Some, like Miller, left on their own. Many others were laid off but then replaced with employees who would be laid off and replaced again.”

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.

The chairman of the board is San Diego County Supervisor Bill Horn.

inewsource is currently suing NCTD for the disclosure of records related to a $31,200 management review. A hearing in Superior Court is set for Aug. 15, 2014.

To see the full list of who's left and the related severance, click here

Comments

Avatar for user 'Mmikey'

Mmikey | June 9, 2014 at 7:24 a.m. ― 3 months, 2 weeks ago

the drivers probably contribute to the transit system than these leeches .

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Avatar for user 'Appalled'

Appalled | June 9, 2014 at 11:43 a.m. ― 3 months, 2 weeks ago

Unbelievable. NCTD and its Board members continue to stonewall, refusing to be accountable. Just a year ago, the Sprinter was shut down for months, costing the taxpayers millions of dollars!

There is obviously a boatload of problems at NCTD, and the Board can't even be bothered to comment! Too lazy, too clueless, or both?

It's very hard to believe that Board member John Aguilera of Vista just passed along this issue to CEO Matt Tucker. Is this Aguilera's idea of providing oversight, and being accountable to the public?

If the Board doesn't wake up to their responsibilities, maybe this agency should just be broken up. San Diego MTS hasn't had the ridiculous number of problems that NCTD has. Why should NCTD even exist?

It may be time to throw out this do-nothing Board and its out-of-control CEO.

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Avatar for user 'TuckerMustGo'

TuckerMustGo | June 9, 2014 at 4:16 p.m. ― 3 months, 2 weeks ago

The waste of money is even worse than the $300,000 mentioned in the article. Those who have the misfortune to work for Matt Tucker know that many of these employees were supposedly “on call” for months, but did not report to the office and did not work.

For example, Diane Hessler has not been in the office since October 2013, more than 6 months ago. Yet she was supposedly “employed” until April 15, 2014.

Reed Caldwell, the Deputy General Manager, stopped coming to the office in December 2013. Yet he was supposedly “employed” until February 17. (And he had just been hired in 2011.)

David Murphy, the COO, has not reported to the office for weeks. Yet he will be kept “on the payroll” through July 24. Murphy had been with NCTD just since 2012.

Nick Freeman, the Deputy COO, also started with NCTD in 2012. Tucker paid a $25,000 recruiting fee for him. Just 2 years later, Freeman is gone.

$300,000 of wasted money is just the tip of the iceberg.

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Avatar for user 'fallbrookcoasterrider'

fallbrookcoasterrider | June 9, 2014 at 6:21 p.m. ― 3 months, 2 weeks ago

Why won't the Board comment? Shouldn't they be accountable to the taxpaying public for the actions taken by the CEO and the continuing mess he creates? Why are they remaining silent? Makes me wonder what he's got over them... I urge the State Attorney General's office or the SD County Grand Jury to get involved and force the Board to be accountable. I am a taxpayer and am shocked that this CEO continues to reign over NCTD and the Board. What will it take to get rid of Tucker and the Board members he rules over? As a public transit rider I hope it doesn't take a preventable tragic accident before actions are taken. The employees, the bus drivers, and the train operators deserve a capable, accountable CEO and Board, as do all the transit riders. Since the Board can't seem to get rid of Tucker, why don't we get rid of NCTD? The operations should be merged into the San Diego Transit System.

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Avatar for user 'NCTDisTuckeredOut'

NCTDisTuckeredOut | June 9, 2014 at 8:04 p.m. ― 3 months, 2 weeks ago

Pay attention, any foolish job applicants for North County Transit. Don't be fooled by the number of ads NCTD places at TransitTalent.com. Just look at the number of people hired and fired in less than 2 years. Matt Tucker's NCTD is where careers go to die.

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Avatar for user 'alexw'

alexw | June 9, 2014 at 8:22 p.m. ― 3 months, 2 weeks ago

KPBS, have you contacted CalPERS about NCTD's practices? This sure looks like fraud and pension spiking! Why is NCTD keeping employees on the payroll when they are not doing any work? CalPERS already found that NCTD's contract with Tom Zoll was illegal. It looks like Tucker continues with his unethical disregard for the law. Shameful!

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Avatar for user 'jtk'

jtk | June 9, 2014 at 9:08 p.m. ― 3 months, 2 weeks ago

I see that Inewsource won a national award for investigative reporting on NCTD. The award found that Inewsource reported on "layer upon layer of bureaucratic arrogance, corruption and ineptitude at the transit system."

Well, this new article shows that "Arrogance, Corruption and Ineptitude" should be the new advertising slogan for Matt Tucker and the NCTD Board.

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Avatar for user 'northcountyvoter'

northcountyvoter | June 10, 2014 at 8:08 a.m. ― 3 months, 2 weeks ago

If I’m reading this article right, NCTD requires terminated employees to sign a confidentiality agreement to silence any criticism of the high and mighty Matt Tucker and NCTD Board. When some employees tried to comply with the confidentiality agreement by contacting Board member John Aguilera anonymously, Aguilera ignored them. And Tucker hypocritically says he won’t respond to anonymous comments. Quite a Catch-22, isn't it? Confidentiality agreements force terminated employees to provide only anonymous comments, and Tucker then refuses to respond to anonymous comments. The use of confidentiality agreements by Tucker and the NCTD Board is despicable. The only reason to do this is to hide something. There needs to be an investigation of this agency.

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Avatar for user 'sdbusrider'

sdbusrider | June 10, 2014 at 4:40 p.m. ― 3 months, 2 weeks ago

if tuckermustgo is correct and employees were paid to stay home, can't that cost be computed so the total cost of employee severance can be known? and how many employees does nctd have and how significant is this and the previously reported turnover?

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Avatar for user 'TuckerMustGo'

TuckerMustGo | June 11, 2014 at 11:26 a.m. ― 3 months, 1 week ago

"sdbusrider" makes two excellent points. First, the total cost of turnover includes not only the $300,000 in severance payments. It also includes the money spent to keep employees on the payroll when they were not doing any actual work. The cost would include not only salary, but also benefits for the time they were not working. The total cost would be additional hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Second, this new article is showing the high rate of turnover just in 2014! Inewsource did a previous article on May 2, 2013 about "NCTD's revolving door" at http://inewsource.org/2013/05/02/north-county-transit-districts-revolving-door-costs-big/. The 2013 article noted that many positions had turned over many times in just a few years. The 2013 article also listed hundreds of thousands of dollars in recruiting fees as well. Turnover is not only out of control in 2014. It has been out of control ever since Tucker came to NCTD in 2009.

The waste of taxpayer money under Tucker is astonishing.

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Avatar for user 'Enoughisenough'

Enoughisenough | June 11, 2014 at 3:06 p.m. ― 3 months, 1 week ago

If an organization has 100% turnover in senior level staff in less than 3 years like NCTD has and the staff is always to blame, when is the board going to smarten up and realize "fish stink from the head.

If Horn was off the board and the CEO surplused the organization could get back to its core mission of providing transportation services to north county instead of waisting money on lawyers, severance agreements and hiding public information.

Hitler had a higher staff retention rate for his generals during WW 2 than NCTD does and we all now how that turned out for him!

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Avatar for user 'ComradePachinko'

ComradePachinko | June 11, 2014 at 9:49 p.m. ― 3 months, 1 week ago

All armed transit security officers have been eliminated. NO more armed officers to protect riders or property at any stations, buses or trains.

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Avatar for user 'sdbusrider'

sdbusrider | June 12, 2014 at 7:57 a.m. ― 3 months, 1 week ago

if there are no armed guards patrolling stations anymore, what changed from when the argument was first made to employ armed guards? is there no longer a threat to the safety of the security guards and/or the riders? or was this just a budget issue and elimination of armed guards now puts many at risk?

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Avatar for user 'sdbusrider'

sdbusrider | June 12, 2014 at 8:03 a.m. ― 3 months, 1 week ago

since 45 top employees have left or been terminated in the past 2 years or so, how significant is that? I looked at the org chart on the nctd website and it lists no employees, just departments. so is 45 from 100, 200, 300, etc? 45 wouldn't be such a big number if the organization was large, such numbers could be considered normal attrition.

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Avatar for user 'JeanMarc'

JeanMarc | June 12, 2014 at 9:33 a.m. ― 3 months, 1 week ago

Boy oh boy, these government-managed services sure are great for the country aren't they? I think we should hand over more responsibilities to the government. Just look at how well the USPS, pension funds, and transit districts are going.

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Avatar for user 'Brad Racino'

Brad Racino, KPBS Staff | June 12, 2014 at 10:28 a.m. ― 3 months, 1 week ago

sdbusrider:

Let me try to answer a few of your questions.

1. "can't that cost be computed so the total cost of employee severance can be known?..."

-- Yes, it's just taking some time to get there.

2. "If there are no armed guards patrolling stations anymore, what changed from when the argument was first made to employ armed guards?"...

-- What changed (apparently) was the two highly-critical audits of NCTD's contractor, Universal Protection Service, who supply the armed guards. I think NCTD thought "enough is enough" and decided to move the whole operation in-house. Why they didn't just go with one of the two other contractors that were competing for the security contract behind Universal, I do not know. Here's our most recent story on it: http://inewsource.org/2014/04/24/nctd-cuts-3-7-million-contract-with-private-security-company-after-audit/

3. "45 wouldn't be such a big number if the organization was large, such numbers could be considered normal attrition."

---Here are the number of full time employees at NCTD, by year.

Full time employees, FY 2010 = 523
Full time employees, FY 2011 = 177
Full time employees, FY 2012 = 99.5
Full time employees, FY 2013 = 126.5
Full time employee projection for 2015 = 151

As a comparison - MTS has 1,452 full time employees for FY 2014. They have signed 10 severance agreements with employees since July 31, 2013.

Hope that answers your questions.

-Brad

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Avatar for user 'JeanMarc'

JeanMarc | June 12, 2014 at 10:34 a.m. ― 3 months, 1 week ago

Good info buddy

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Avatar for user 'tuckerisamess'

tuckerisamess | June 13, 2014 at 1:46 p.m. ― 3 months, 1 week ago

I find it curious that so many people have been let go without any questions from Mr. Racino or others as to why. Were any of these people let go for cause, which would be the honorable way for management to dismiss them? or did management hide behind CA "at will" work rules to just say good by when they wanted to make a change? A good organization that valued all employees would have had annual written reviews that could identify potential problems before they reached the point of termination. Counseling employees to improve is the least that should have been done. Did the District have a policy and practice to give annual performance reviews during Tuckers tenure? One would think that if so, the number of employees being let go would not have been as large. and if not, then it was a conscious decision to never let anyone know where they stood and just can them when they grew tired of them. And of course, give them a severance package with payments to buy their silence. What was it that needed to be silenced? This whole mess is not how real companies run, but then NCTD isn't a real company but a government agency. If the Board isn't concerned about the massive turnover in a small agency as Mr. Racino states in his articles, then who else is left to be concerned?

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Avatar for user 'sdbusrider'

sdbusrider | June 13, 2014 at 4:25 p.m. ― 3 months, 1 week ago

Thank you for your response to my questions Mr. Racino. However, if the District made the decision in the past to have armed security guards, apparently because of the risk to unarmed security guards, what is the rationale now to not have armed security guards? Did they share the reason for their decision with the Board?
Seems like it's a less safe environment at transit centers now with all the crazies out there.

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Avatar for user 'sadsituation'

sadsituation | June 15, 2014 at 7:34 a.m. ― 3 months, 1 week ago

I found all of these comments to be right on the mark. In particular, I felt the comparison between Tucker's and Hitler's regimes to be quite compelling. I've often thought of that comparison as I've watched this organization, once an outstanding agency, spiral downward into the disastrous straits it now finds itself. As a taxpayer, I would fully support San Diego MTS taking over NCTD. Folks -- what would it take to make this happen? Is a Grand Jury investigation the first step? If so, does it take more than one person to initiate this? MTS would do a much better job overseeing and running transit services in the north county. Their performance speaks for itself.

I further agree with the commenters who said that going to work for NCTD while all this turmoil is going on would be career suicide. I've steered a large number of people away from applying there. Things will get better once Tucker is finally gone and time is allowed to undo the harm he has caused. Rumor has it that he's on a 1-year extended contract. Hope the Board wises up and doesn't extend it yet again. But, they might! Astonishingly, they continue to drink the Tucker Koolaid, which is why I cannot vote for those in my jurisdiction when they come up for reelection. And, I'm not just one vote. My entire family and close friends will not vote for them either.

As for taking arms away from the Security Guards, I, too, was shocked to learn this. I speculate that one of the reasons Tucker made this decision was that he needed those monies to help pay off former employees when they leave the agency. Some of those who were let go got a much better deal than those who left on their own. Imagine... making your current salary, collecting health insurance, and adding service credits to your Cal-Pers pension when you're not even there! And in some cases this went on for 6 months?!

Finally, I'd like to give a kudos to Mr. Racino for bringing to light the corruption, arrogance and inept management that has become the trademark of NCTD over the past few years. Please keep investigating this agency. It seems to be one of a very few ways that the unseating of the CEO dictator might finally happen. Another way might be from all the poor audits they continue to receive. The Federal Transit Administration (FTA) has this agency on its radar. The FTA provide the largest source of revenue for NCTD. If they start tightening up the purse strings until NCTD cleans up its act, I can't see how NCTD would be able to continue functioning.

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