August 20, 2014 at 11:34 pm

Snyder appointee will have veto power over new regional transit chief's decisions

The contract that new Regional Transit Authority CEO Michael Ford signed Wednesday gives him full control over hiring employees and managing the budget along with a $10,000 car allowance.

But the contract, unanimously approved by the board, also specifies that RTA Chairman Paul Hillegonds, Gov. Rick Snyder’s board appointee, can veto those decisions.

Ford reached an agreement this week to become the RTA’s first CEO, taking a job at an agency that will seek a tax increase in two years to fund improved transit options such as bus rapid transit for Woodward Avenue and help shape transportation goals in a region still car-centered.

Most recently the CEO of the Ann Arbor Area Transportation Authority, Ford will make $200,000 annually as part of a three-year deal — an increase from his current salary of $185,000.

The earliest he could start would be mid-October because he has to give his Ann Arbor employer 60 days notice under his contract. The first order of business will be to hire staff-- a planner, community relations specialist, a finance person and clerical staff.

“I need to get more involved in talking to people in understanding what the needs are,” Ford said.

“I have my own beliefs and thoughts but it’s incumbent upon me to really saturate the different areas” of all four counties.

“I plan to get out and really hear what people have to say, their thoughts and what their ideas are and put a plan together that meets their needs.”

The RTA will pay $12,000 to move Ford to the area and he will have 200 hours of vacation time, according to the contract.

If he is fired without cause, the board must pay Ford the remaining money owed on his contract — a “high price” that would be totally unexpected because of Ford’s sterling reputation, Hillegonds said.

“I believe Michael Ford is going to provide terrific leadership for the Regional Transit Authority and that’s based on his experience at all levels of public transit,” Hillegonds said. “He’ll work well with the other providers in the region and ultimately will allow us to enhance transit throughout southeast Michigan.”

Ford’s decision to accept the RTA board’s offer comes three months after it was offered. The board’s first choice last year — SMART General Manager John Hertel — turned down the post after a debate ensued over what money was available to hire staff.

Ford faces challenges in a four-county area that has resisted regional transportation initiatives for decades.

They include assembling a staff on a shoestring budget, helping to better coordinate services among the region’s transit providers and convincing voters in Macomb, Oakland, Wayne and Washtenaw counties that a property tax hike is needed to fund RTA operations and the Bus Rapid Transit project up Woodward Avenue from Detroit to Pontiac.

lfleming@detroitnews.com
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