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N.Y. Transit Official Spurns Top MTA Job

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Michael C. Ascher, the New York transit executive courted by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority for its top job, jilted Los Angeles on Thursday, prompting Mayor Richard Riordan to decry the “political interference” that has frustrated the search for a new transit chief.

Ascher is the second candidate to spurn the MTA chief executive’s job, despite the agency’s offer of a total compensation package of up to $235,000 a year. His decision came as a surprise, even to an agency that often seems to operate in total conformity with Murphy’s Law.

Riordan, chairman of the MTA’s board, said Ascher’s withdrawal adds urgency “now, more than ever” to pending state legislation that would remove elected officials from the agency’s board.

The mayor said he will ask the board today to appoint Julian Burke, a former Riordan colleague and corporate turnaround specialist, to run the agency until a permanent CEO can be found.

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Ascher declined to comment on his decision, but Riordan said the executive was distressed by leaks to the media concerning salary negotiations. “He said he was warned this type of thing would happen,” Riordan said, “but he said he had to see it to believe it.”

Some MTA board members said they were troubled by reports that Ascher was seeking a $235,000 base salary, a $3,500-a-month housing allowance and a “signing bonus” of as much as $100,000 to compensate him for anticipated financial losses, including those from the sale of his boat.

In a brief letter announcing his withdrawal, Ascher said that the “all-too-tentative nature of the institutional reforms” at the agency was paramount in his decision.

“This was not an easy decision for me, since Mrs. Ascher and I were quite prepared intellectually and emotionally for this difficult assignment and relocation,” he wrote. County supervisor and MTA board member Zev Yaroslavsky said Ascher may not have been right for the politically tough job. “If this is all it took for him to pull his application, then he wasn’t ready for prime time,” Yaroslavsky said.

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County supervisor and MTA board member Mike Antonovich added: “Ascher has chosen to remain admiral of his yacht instead of director of transit for Los Angeles County.”

Norman Roberts, the executive recruiter who conducted the nationwide search for a CEO, said, “In my 28 years of conducting executive recruitment for public agencies, I would say this has to be the most difficult that I have ever been involved in.”

Of nearly 100 executives contacted during the nationwide search, fewer than 25 expressed interest in the job.

The MTA has been without a permanent CEO since January, when Joseph E. Drew resigned, citing political infighting and “public hypercriticism” of him and his staff. The first MTA chief, Franklin E. White, served 32 months before he was fired in 1995.

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Riordan said he was disappointed by Ascher’s decision but was “even more disappointed that this is the second time that political interference has derailed our ability to close a deal with a qualified candidate.” Riordan’s earlier choice for the job, Bechtel construction executive Theodore Weigle Jr., turned down the job in May.

“It is abundantly clear that reforms are needed at the MTA,” Riordan said. “We must remove elected officials from the board; we must restructure the board. Otherwise, this scenario may repeat itself and the MTA will never be able to attract the qualified leadership it needs.”

A Riordan-backed bill that would replace the 13-member MTA board of mostly elected officials with a nine-member panel of mostly appointees will come before the Assembly Appropriations Committee next Wednesday.

“What could be worse than what we have?” Riordan said.

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But county supervisors who serve on the MTA board said that appointees would not have the same sense of responsibility to the voters as elected officials.

“The fact that there are elected officials on the MTA board is what prevented this kind of sweetheart deal from happening,” said Yaroslavsky. “The reason this deal blew up was that it was exposed. . . . It’s embarrassing to have to explain that you asked for somebody to bail you out on a boat. This is a case in point of why this board should not be made up of a group of nameless corporate executives appointed by people who will not be held accountable for their performance.”

Ascher’s withdrawal was a personal and political setback for Riordan, who called the selection of a strong, effective CEO critical to turning around the troubled agency and restoring confidence in Sacramento and Washington in order to keep funds flowing to Los Angeles.

The CEO search has gained urgency since federal officials earlier this month rejected the MTA’s latest plan to put its fiscal house in order.

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MTA officials have said they will almost certainly need to delay completion of rail lines to the Eastside, Mid-City and Pasadena and studies of lines through the San Fernando Valley and the Crenshaw district, but Riordan has said he wants to await the recommendation of the new CEO before proceeding.

“The MTA should not put itself ever again in the position where it’s made its decision public about a selection and then starts to negotiate the compensation package, because we’re being held hostage at that point,” Yaroslavsky said.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Leadership Crisis at the MTA

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* April 1, 1993: After years of political controversy, Los Angeles’ two existing transit agencies are merged by state law into the new Metropolitan Transportation Authority, with former New York state transportation commissioner Franklin E. White as chief executive officer.

* December 1995: White is ousted. He asserts that he was forced out for daring to say no to politicians and construction special interests. Deputy Chief Executive Officer Joseph E. Drew soon is named as new chief.

* Dec. 4, 1996: Drew resigns, his leadership under fire.

* May 21, 1997: Bechtel Corp. executive Theodore Weigle Jr., Mayor Richard Riordan’s choice to take over the MTA, turns down the job after weeks of negotiations.

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* Aug. 13, 1997: The MTA board offers the chief’s job to New York City transit executive Michael C. Ascher.

* Aug. 21, 1997: Ascher withdraws as a candidate.

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Who’d Want This Job?

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* CEO is responsible for implementing a court order to improve the nation’s most crowded bus system and turning around the troubled $6.1-billion Los Angeles subway project.

* The high-pressure job is politically treacherous, with conflicting demands from 13 board members pushing their pet projects and accused of constantly meddling in the agency’s day-to-day operations.

* CEO must also cope with well-connected businesses and their lobbyists seeking lucrative contracts.


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