California bullet train chief executive is still on the state payroll — two months after his exit date

California bullet train chief executive Jeff Morales announced in April that he would be leaving June 2, after five years running the nation’s largest infrastructure project.

But in the four months since, the high speed rail board has not taken any public action to replace him. In fact, Morales is still on the state payroll, and officials say he will be at the authority at least through Tuesday.

There were rumors as far back as November, denied by the authority at the time, that Morales would be making an exit — suggesting there was plenty of time to prepare.

When asked this week about what was being done to replace Morales, longtime rail project chairman Dan Richard said the authority was in the process of hiring an executive recruitment firm — but that has taken time because of state procurement regulations. In addition, he said, the rail board has been attempting to “network” to find candidates.

“A search firm is almost in place,” Richard said, adding that the rail board “did not feel a sense of urgency because the ship is in good shape.” He said the process of replacing Morales likely would continue for a few months.

Morales stayed on past his announced exit date, Richard said, to assist with the transition, including working on environmental documents.

It appears that the rail authority has encountered more difficulty than it expected in finding a replacement for Morales, according to officials close to the project who spoke on condition of anonymity when discussing personnel matters.

A summer board meeting was canceled, and members who met in an earlier closed session to consider a replacement did not take any action.

“They seemed near to having a replacement a couple times, and then nothing happened,” one official said.

According to civil engineering experts, part of the problem in recruiting a top-notch manager might be that Gov. Jerry Brown will be leaving office in about 16 months. The next governor could want his own person in the job, or even restructure the troubled project.

The role of acting chief executive was taken over by Tom Fellenz, the chief counsel of the authority, who has been running the project with the help of several other senior rail officials. Richard said he has been impressed with how that team is performing.

Morales was feted at a going-away party at a Sacramento restaurant in June — when most of the staff had expected him to leave.

One executive at the authority, who requested anonymity when discussing state matters, said nobody has been able to figure out what Morales has been doing, although decisions by the new management team are being made more promptly since he stepped down.

“There is more actual control of the project now,” the official said.

Morales’ five-year tenure at the rail authority produced mixed results.

The project survived legal and political challenges. It awarded three key construction contracts and started building the first segment in Fresno — even though Morales had to deal with inadequate funding and deep opposition by Central Valley landowners.

On the other hand, the bullet train is an estimated seven years behind schedule and faces estimates of higher costs. Staff morale has sagged at the agency, based on internal employee surveys. And officials close to the project said some board members had lost confidence in Morales’ leadership.

Morales did not cite a reason for stepping down from the job, which paid nearly $400,000 a year.

ralph.vartabedian@latimes.com

Follow me on Twitter @rvartabedian

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