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Tuesday, September 4, 2018

RTA Board of Trustees Will Self-Destruct in Five, Four, Three, Two ...

Posted By on Tue, Sep 4, 2018 at 2:32 PM

click to enlarge ATU President William Nix speaks at CPT rally, (7/23/2018). - SAM ALLARD / SCENE
  • Sam Allard / Scene
  • ATU President William Nix speaks at CPT rally, (7/23/2018).
Westlake Mayor Dennis Clough, the freshly minted president of the 10-member RTA Board of Trustees, currently presides over a body of eight. Due to two recent resignations, and the inability of appointing authorities to do their jobs in a timely manner, the board that theoretically oversees Ohio's largest transit authority may shrink further still.

It's obvious to anyone who has observed a recent RTA board meeting for longer than 90 seconds that Clough is in way over his head.  And that doesn't look like it's going to change any time soon, certainly not after the big news this weekend: Sonny Nardi, a union guy who'd been a board member for 12 years, announced that he was resigning out of frustration with "Senior Advisor" Joe Calabrese and widespread organizational discord.

"At no time, since my first appointment to serve," Nardi wrote in his resignation letter, "have I felt more frustrated with recent management decisions, revelations on internal past practices and ongoing missteps in communications from management to the Board; all of which hinder the progress and forward momentum needed to navigate the current challenges of transit in the State of Ohio."

The straw that broke the camel's (that is, Nardi's) back was Calabrese's six-figure payout to former HR Director Bruce Hampton, who was recently accused by RTA investigators of helping former Board President George Nixon III access his health insurance without paying for it.

The Dixon scandal is what has pushed all the mismanagement into the public eye, though the problems at the organization, which are deep and varied, have been ongoing for decades. "While RTA maintains a clean public face," we wrote in 2016, "it is allegedly dirtied by the same behind-the-scenes muck that has afflicted this region's governmental and quasi-governmental entities for decades: racism, patronage, incompetence."

And so yes. Calabrese authorized the $125,000 Hampton payment without board approval. The payout appeared to be a traditional, if generous, severance package (six months' salary plus benefits), and Calabrese argued that it would save the agency money in the long run because it prevented Hampton from filing suit, but the board felt out of the loop.

"Isn't this exactly the type of issue we asked to know about?" Board member Karen Gabriel Moss asked her colleagues in an email. "We specifically told Joe we did not want to hear about what was going on at RTA in the news." (Moss found out about the Hampton payment, like the rest of us, from a Fox 8 report.)

So now Nardi's out, and that means that His Sluggishness Cuyahoga County Executive Armond Budish will have to appoint a replacement. But Budish has been negligent in his appointing duties. A county spokeswoman told Scene that she'd try to get some face time with Budish to determine where he stands on the Nardi replacement and whether or not he'll get around to finally replacing Gary Norton, the former East Cleveland Mayor who's been twiddling his thumbs in his board seat ever since his term expired in March.

The last time Scene had the temerity to inquire whether or not replacing Norton was even on Budish's radar — and if he'd considered Clevelanders for Public Transit's repeated calls for the appointment of a regular rider to the RTA board — we were shooed away in the vaguest possible terms. Budish, we were told, was "considering appointments for a few boards, including RTA."

As for the city appointments, Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson made a solid (that is to say, appropriately credentialed) choice with his Dixon replacement: NOACA Senior Planner Kelley Britt. But in August, Britt was forced to step down. The Ohio Ethics Commission ruled that she would not be allowed to keep her position at NOACA while serving on the board. And while Britt did not agree, she did not dispute the ruling. "It is what it is," she did actually say.

Jackson said at the time that he'd be replacing Britt in "the near future." But as of today, city spokespeople had no immediate updates on Jackson's process. We'll update the moment we hear.

As for the rest of the board, they're trying to keep the ship afloat, or at least their heads above water (where "water" = RTA news and internal communiques). The realization that's evidently beginning to dawn is that Calabrese, who's as friendly and approachable as CEOs come in Northeast Ohio, might have been much more aware of, perhaps even more culpable in, the agency's problems than he let on.

"Joe Calabrese should be the one resigning," board member Trevor Elkins told the Plain Dealer after Nardi's announcement. "He has been completely dishonest."

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