Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Metro lobs a high hard one past TriMet's ear

The American past-time of baseball has numerous traditions associated with it, along with an extensive set of unwritten rules--the etiquette and ritual of the game.  And no aspect of the game is more central than the relationship between the pitcher and the batter, as the two duelists try to eke out every advantage over the other.  One technique many batters attempt to employ is crowding the plate--stepping beyond the batter's box by a couple of inches, encroaching upon the strike zone--thereby making borderline outside pitches hittable, and making it harder for the pitcher to throw balls inside.  And the common response of a pitcher to such encroachments is the brushback pitch--a high inside fastball designed to come uncomfortably close to the batter's head, and encourage him to retreat to the safety of the box.   Brushback pitches are different from beanballs--the pitcher is not trying to injure the batter, just intimidate him.  And if the pitcher is a feared fireballer--a Randy Johnson or a Nolan Ryan in their respective primes--the technique often works. 

And so it is in politics as well.  The political equivalent to chin music frequently is the open letter--a politely-but-sharply-worded missive written in letter form and sent to an elected official or policymaker--and simultaneously (or subsequently) published in order to make the intended recipient squirm.  Not all such letters have the desired effect--were a blogger such as myself to draft one, it would almost assuredly be ignored by the target--but if the sender has real power, an open letter can be intimidating indeed.

Which leads us to the open letter which Metro councilor Robert Liberty sent to TriMet last week, and which was posted on Metro's website today (as well as incorporated in the Metro-spam-stream for those who subscribe to it, such as yours truly).  It is reproduced here:

TriMet Board of Directors
4012 SE 17th Ave.
Portland, OR 97202
June 6, 2010

Dear President Van Beveren and members of the TriMet Board of Directors:

Congratulations on your recent hiring of Neil McFarlane as General Manager.

I have served on committees with Mr. McFarlane and found him competent, thoughtful and easy to work with. I look forward to working with him in his new role as General Manager McFarlane and expect him to be a capable leader of TriMet.

However, the process by which the Board selected a new General Manager concerns me.

Fred Hansen's retirement was announced on March 17. I expected Mr. Hansen's retirement to be used as an occasion to hold public hearings to solicit comments from the public regarding the opportunities and challenges facing the transit agency and how those opportunities and challenges should inform the choice of the next General Manager.

The hearings would have allowed the public to comment on very basic questions of strategy, such as trade-offs between capital and operating costs for light rail versus buses, how to extend transit services to the outer portions of the region, integrating land use and transportation investments, and the long-term financial health of the agency.

I expected the selection of a search committee that would draw on not just the TriMet Board and a few local officials but also prominent members of the regional community.

I expected an international search for a new General Manager, because our region and TriMet can attract talent from across the U.S., Canada and other countries. The culmination would be the public vetting of the finalists.
But that isn't what happened.

Three weeks after Fred Hansen announced his retirement, Metro President David Bragdon and I called the TriMet Board President to learn about the search process and to pass along the name of a potential candidate. I was amazed to hear that TriMet had already created a search committee, had narrowed the list of candidates to six to eight finalists, and that the list would be narrowed to three finalists within a matter of a week or two.

Mr. McFarlane's selection as General Manager was decided in late April and announced on May 4.

One of the greatest assets of this region is the large number of sophisticated and engaged citizens, from all parts of the region and all walks of life, who have important experience, professional expertise and good ideas about how we make our very good transit system even better. Many of these citizens or their businesses pay the taxes that support TriMet operations.

The Board missed an important opportunity to benefit from the knowledge of the citizens, customers and taxpayers in one of the most important, or perhaps the most important, decision it makes.

Like you, I hope that Mr. McFarlane has a long and successful tenure at TriMet and so there will be no opportunity in the near term to try a different approach to hiring the General Manager.

However, there will be many other opportunities in the future for TriMet to benefit from engaging our thoughtful citizenry in the important issues about our regional transit system. I hope the Board will seize those opportunities.

Despite my disagreement with the Board about the hiring process, I also would like you to know that I appreciate your service as community volunteers.


Robert Liberty

Ball one, hollers the ump as the batter gets off the ground.

Metro had previously made its displeasure known about the shortened (and secretive) hiring process, one in which The Oregonian manage to report that someone else, rather than Mr. McFarlane, had gotten the gig.   So this letter, published right in the middle of McFarlane's transition period (he takes over full-time on July 1), seems to be a calculated warning shot.

And it's one with teeth.  Metro, after all, has the statutory power to take over TriMet, whose board of directors presently serves at the pleasure of the Governor.  Metro so far hasn't explicitly threatened to use this power--and perhaps the running of the beleaguered transit agency is one additional iron that Metro would rather not have in its fire.  But the way TriMet conducted its search seemed to annoy just about every other local government in town--but it's Metro who is standing on the mound, armed with a 95MPH fastball.


  1. What's really fun is when the pitcher lobs a brushback pitch, the batter falls on his behind (narrowly avoiding being smacked in the gob)--and the ump calls a strike.

    That's when the batter knows it ain't his day. :)


Keep it clean, please