Frustration and Hope Expressed as CATA Seeks New Leadership

Tuesday, August 1, 2017, 9:00 am
Alice Dreger

As CATA opens a search for a new Chief Executive Officer, the regional bus service’s leadership and its executive-search consultants heard from dozens of greater-Lansing-area community members at Hannah Community Center last night about what they hope to see in the new CEO. Numerous citizens spoke of their hopes, but also of frustration with CATA’s services, management, and institutional style. Community members named problems with route design, technological approaches (or lack thereof), services for persons with disabilities, transparency, and accountability.

The company has faced sharp criticism in the last year over numerous issues, including having had to pay $1.2 million in penalties because of late filing of payroll taxes. In the last year, CATA’s management of its proposed Bus Rapid Transit also led to open disagreement with Meridian Township, Michigan State University, the bicycle advocacy community, and the disability community.

In the midst of much bad press, this past spring, Sandy Dragoo announced she would be stepping down as CATA’s CEO in February 2018. Draggoo has spent over three decades at the helm, and her retirement has marked part of a wave of departures of top managers at CATA.

A vocal crowd showed up:

About forty people attended last night’s “listening session” at Hannah Community Center. Also in attendance were about twenty CATA staff members, board members, and external consultants.

Former East Lansing mayor Nathan Triplett, Treasurer of CATA’s Board of Directors, launched the session. Triplett is serving as Chair of the search committee. Also serving on the search committee are Doug Lecato, Robin Lewis, Dan Opsommer, Lansing Mayor Virg Bernero, CATA Employee Representative Katie Kelley, CATA Local Advisory Committee Chair Deb Weise, and MSU’s Assistant Vice President of Community Relations Janet Lillie.

After brief opening remarks, Triplett introduced the external consultants hired to manage the search process. The consultants’ company, KL2 Connects, is being paid $39,500 plus travel expenses for its work, according to minutes from CATA’s June Board meeting. The company specializes in “headhunting” for public transit executives.

KL2 Connects’ Celia Kupersmith told those in attendance that her team wanted to hear from people about what skills and qualities CATA should be seeking in its new CEO. She said that after her short explanatory remarks, the room would immediately break into “listening” sessions with small groups or one-on one.

But several of those in attendance immediately called instead for the microphone to be passed around so that those present could hear what others in the room had brought as their concerns and ideas. Kupersmith ultimately had to yield to this alternative approach, although throughout the session, she and her KL2 Connects colleagues worked to convert comments provided into words that might be used on a list of qualities sought in the next CEO.

Frustrations and hopes expressed:

Some community members had open praise for CATA, but a regular theme among comments offered was that CATA is resistant to new ideas that could improve service and expand ridership. CATA was also repeatedly described as failing to have positive relationships with constituents who could help the company do better.

Two MSU undergraduate student leaders spoke about CATA’s failure to adequately address the needs of on- and off-campus student riders.

One, Ellen Searle, said MSU students find the service inadequate and unreliable.

The other, MSU Student Body President Lorenzo Santavicca, said MSU students had tried a couple of years ago to work with CATA to provide live-update maps of its buses, so that riders could see when buses were approaching and make travel decisions accordingly. Santavicca said this attempt to create live-update maps “ran into so many roadblocks” and died.

Santavicca said people like him have “so many options nowadays,” including rideshare services like Uber and bikeshare options. He suggested CATA was not realistically engaging the current scene of transportation options. Another speaker also said CATA needed to engage emerging technologies like driverless cars and buses.

But East Lansing Councilmember Erik Altmann, who was in attendance, disagreed. He said he thought “wise” consuming of technology made sense but insisted that self-driving cars and buses “are not going to happen in my lifetime.” He said those who think they will “don’t understand the psychology” of our culture. He said he hopes the next CEO of CATA would not “waste a lot of money on a boondoggle” involving self-driving vehicles.

Many community members expressed frustration with CATA’s services to persons with disabilities, noting that for many riders with disabilities, CATA is their only real transportation option for day-to-day life. One person called for a CEO “with great knowledge” of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

Donna Rose, who serves on the CATA Board, spoke to this issue from her own perspective as someone who is blind, a kidney transplant recipient, “and often not well.” She said she wanted a CEO “who is as respectful as possible about people who really have to ride the services.” She noted that if one is a non-choice rider (truly dependent on CATA) who forgets to buy a loaf of bread while shopping, it could be two days before you can obtain the CATA service you need to get back to the store.

Others spoke to a lack of transparency at CATA. In the last year, frustration over the Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) plan in particular led to many community members using the Freedom of Information Act to obtain information about salaries and other expenditures, which in turn led to more frustration. The BRT was named as an example of poor collaboration with constituents.

Leonard Provencher told the consultants he only uses CATA “about once every twenty years” but said that, as someone paying property taxes to support CATA, he expected “transparency and accountability.” He continued, “As a citizen who pays over three mills a year to support CATA, I think I’m entitled to those things.” Provencher said the minutes released by CATA’s board inadequately captured what’s really going on at Board meetings.

Several people said CATA’s system for payment is cumbersome and outdated. One man also suggested that CATA’s routes are illogical, and that a “fishbone” approach—wherein short straight-line routes coming off the Route #1 “backbone”—would make more sense. Many agreed the routes need revising.

Going forward:

In response to these comments, Kupersmith and her colleagues said they heard people calling for such qualities as openness, communicativeness, responsiveness, flexibility, and respect. These are traits, she said, they would let the search committee know were important to the community.

According to Kupersmith, the external consultants are now going to formulate a “leadership profile” with the search committee and will then advertise and promote the position. They will be seeking candidates nationwide. Kupersmith expects to spend about two months on “resume collection” after which “a more formal screening interview process” will begin.

The Board of Directors will ultimately have interviews with the finalists, with the goal being to hire someone by the end of this year.