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2 MTA Officials Call for Firing of Chief Executive

TIMES STAFF WRITER

After months of hand-wringing over the future of the county’s massive transportation network, two board members at the Metropolitan Transportation Authority are pressing to oust the chief executive in a formal showdown of far-reaching repercussions for the multibillion-dollar agency, officials said Sunday.

“Something has to be done. Every morning I get up and read in the paper that we’re getting hammered again,” said board member Raul Perez. “If I want to change the direction of the orchestra, you’ve got to change the conductor.”

Perez and fellow board member John Fasana met Friday with Chief Executive Officer Franklin E. White to tell him that they were adding a last-minute item to Wednesday’s board agenda--a closed session on whether to fire White from the $175,000-a-year post. They contend that the agency is adrift because White has failed to demonstrate able leadership, particularly over construction of the county’s problem-ridden $5.8-billion subway project.

White has been shadowed for months by various behind-the-scenes efforts to force his ouster, but Mayor Richard Riordan, who sits on the MTA board, and other critics backed away from acting on the idea early this year in a temporary if uneasy truce with the chief executive.

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Now, however, after stepped-up pressure from state lawmakers and a series of scathing reports on the Hollywood Boulevard sinkhole, opponents on the 13-member board believe they have the votes to dismiss White. Wednesday’s agenda item marks the first time the suggestion has been formally proposed for discussion by the board, officials said.

White, who has spoken with some board members since Friday in an apparent attempt to rally support, declined to comment Sunday. Two weeks ago, when one legislator demanded his firing, White said he was not worried about his job status.

Some of White’s supporters on the politically divided MTA board contend that the former New York state transportation chief has become a scapegoat for local transit problems, and they characterized the latest move as a blindside attack that circumvents decision-making protocol.

MTA Board Chairman Larry Zarian said Sunday that he spent half an hour Friday trying to talk Fasana and Perez out of calling the closed session because he considers it divisive. “This will be harmful and the price we will pay in the long term will be bigger than the short-term solution, sending a signal that we are not tolerant [of disagreements] and we are determined to make changes hastily,” he said.

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Fasana said he hopes to see the board discuss White’s dismissal in closed session at Wednesday’s meeting and then go immediately into public session for a vote. But Zarian said he is uncertain what actions the board might take on the controversial issue, ranging from firing to referring the matter to committee.

Riordan, who also controls three appointments to the MTA board, continues to support a “thorough evaluation” of the chief executive because of concerns about his performance, said mayoral aide Steve Sugerman, but he could not say how Riordan might vote on the issue.

Supervisor Mike Antonovich, an MTA board member and frequent critic of the agency’s direction, said Sunday that Riordan holds the real wild card on the issue because the mayor must decide whether he is willing to risk a public confrontation in a debate that has thus far remained largely behind closed doors.

“If the mayor decides he wants Frank out, he has the votes to get him out,” said Antonovich, who plans to meet with White today to help decide his own position.

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For his part, Zarian said, the matter should be looked into, but he stands behind White. “I believe Franklin has had a tough job in an enormously difficult period. Things have happened that he had no control over, but the buck stops with Franklin. He is the CEO, and so we have to look at this,” the chairman said.

MTA board member James Cragin said he believes that any attempt to fire White--which would mean paying off the remaining year of his contract in severance--should first have been routed through the board’s executive committee for discussion in a less harried manner.

“This is ridiculous, and it’s pretty underhanded,” Cragin said. “These people are picking the guy to death. . . . Certainly we can get along with White for one more year and let this play out.”

But Fasana, a Duarte councilman, said the urgency of the agency’s problems demand quick action.

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“This is going to be controversial, it’s going to cause some disruption, and it’s going to cause anxiety, and it’s most fair to everyone to have a quick referendum right away,” he said. “The whole board has been holding off, hoping against hope that things could turn around. Well, they haven’t.”

White has headed the MTA for 2 1/2 years, often under intense scrutiny from the board. As the top executive of an agency created in 1993 through the merger of the county’s two biggest transit bodies, he oversees both the operation of the county’s overcrowded buses and the planning and construction of a $72-billion rail expansion over the next two decades.

It is the rail construction that has caused White the most headaches.

Confronted with funding cutbacks, cost overruns and scheduling setbacks, the MTA has had to drastically scale back its vision for the county’s rail lines in the 21st Century.

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Construction efforts on the subway project and elsewhere have been plagued with technical and legal problems--from thin tunnel walls to ground sinkages and contracting snafus. Federal authorities are now investigating allegations of fraud and corruption as well.

Fasana, who is filing this week’s agenda item under the business of “discipline/dismissal/release,” said he does not hold White personally accountable for many construction problems that the MTA’s contractors should have caught. But he said White has lacked leadership abilities by failing to reverse the plummeting morale at the agency.

Fasana said he is worried that the MTA will suffer even greater cutbacks in federal funds for its rail program, which were temporarily frozen last year because of construction shortcomings. An upcoming “60 Minutes” television segment on the MTA threatens to further erode the agency’s credibility on a nationwide scale, Fasana and Perez said.

“The future’s too important for us to keep taking the hits we’re taking,” Fasana said.

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