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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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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

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