With CATS at a crossroads, officials to begin process of choosing new CEO for troubled bus system _lowres

Advocate staff file photo by BILL FEIG -- Passengers wait at Cortana Mall for a bus transfer in 2014.

Whoever takes over as the next head of the Capital Area Transit System will inherit a much-maligned organization about halfway through the life of its first property tax at a time when some have said the city isn’t getting its money’s worth.

A day after the outgoing CEO announced his resignation, CATS board Chairman Jim Brandt called for a special meeting Friday to appoint an interim director and assemble a committee to find a permanent replacement for Bob Mirabito, who became CEO in June 2013 and will step down May 6.

The new leader will have to provide services to the vast majority of riders who don’t have private transportation while offering incentives to persuade people who own vehicles to use the bus, Brandt said.

He or she will have to contend with Baton Rouge traffic snarls and interference from the East Baton Rouge Parish Metro Council, added Elizabeth “Boo” Thomas, president of the nonprofit Center for Planning Excellence. The hotly debated union contract expires next year. One local politician has said conditions have gotten so bad that the city should just hire a private firm to take over CATS management.

“There are not a lot of great solutions out there,” Thomas said of the whole situation. “CATS is at a crossroads. We are at a crossroads for our community.”

Brandt indicated the board is looking to promote someone from the CATS ranks to fill in as interim CEO. Asked if the board would look at external applicants for the permanent replacement, Brandt said, “All options are on the table,” but he added that the search committee selected Friday ultimately will make those decisions.

He was not sure how long it would take to hire a new CEO but estimated a two- to three-month process.

Metro Councilman and mayoral candidate John Delgado issued a statement Tuesday calling for a private management company to oversee administrative duties. He also has advocated for putting the system under the control of the Metro Council.

Brandt said Wednesday that CATS contracted with a private company for about two years in the past and even hired one employee from the firm who now serves as the transit system’s chief revenue officer.

However, Brandt said he believes his fellow board members don’t have much appetite for going back to a private company. Board members contacted Wednesday declined to comment, directing all inquiries to Brandt.

Thomas said the right management firm with a solid performance-based contract could be a long-term solution for CATS. However, she also pointed out that companies may not want to take the job because the Metro Council oversees some CATS decisions, such as route changes, which can hamstring the transit system.

Local union President Naomi Guy also has remarked that “privatization is not the answer.”

Tuesday, during a discussion of future leadership, she mentioned two CATS administrators by name and called them experienced and knowledgeable, but on Wednesday, she clarified in a statement that “the vetting process of a new CEO/GM is not within the Local’s (purview).”

One challenge for the new CEO will be to balance the needs of regular riders with attempts to lure new riders, such as people from the suburbs who already may own vehicles.

“We will continue to try experiments,” Brandt said, such as the Red Stick Trolley, on-board Wi-Fi, and park and ride routes.

“You’ve got to try things” but be ready to move on if a new service doesn’t work out, said Edgar Cage, of Together Baton Rouge, a faith-based group that advocated for the CATS tax and keeps tabs on the system.

Cage described CATS during Mirabito’s tenure as a mixed bag. If he had to grade the system under the outgoing CEO, Cage said, he’d give it a C or a C-minus.

“The system from three years ago has made progress,” he said.

Ride times have improved and shelters have gone up at some stops, but progress hasn’t always come quickly.

Thomas gave Mirabito a C-plus, saying the CEO did a “remarkable” job with the system he inherited, but he could have used some help with public relations.

Mirabito took some heat last year over comments about the racial demographics of CATS ridership.

He has not responded to calls for comment from The Advocate since announcing his retirement, and the CATS spokeswoman did not respond to several questions posed Wednesday except to confirm that a board meeting will be held Friday.

In his resignation letter, Mirabito wrote that being in the public eye was affecting his family.

Eat Baton Rouge Parish Mayor-President Kip Holden said in a Wednesday interview on Jim Engster’s radio show that it’s wrong of people to, so to speak, throw Mirabito’s family under the bus even if they disagree with his decisions about CATS, saying such actions signify a “barbaric society.”

Holden said improving CATS needs to be the No. 1 focus and not mudslinging between the pro-Mirabito and anti-Mirabito camps.

“Give the guy credit; he tried,” Holden said. “He could have thrown up his hands a long time ago.”

Some wish he had.

“(Mirabito) has people wondering if they should have passed the tax,” said state Rep. and former Metro Councilwoman C. Denise Marcelle, D-Baton Rouge, a longtime critic of the CEO who pushed for his resignation months ago.

Whether the tax is renewed in 2022 will greatly affect city transit.

Cage said it “would be a tragedy” if CATS can’t get adequate funding to operate.

Former CATS board Chairman and current LSU law professor Chris Tyson said the 10.6-mill property tax is “not gratuitous. It’s basic.”

He declined to discuss specific issues with the CATS system now that he’s no longer an official, but he did point out that without local revenue dedicated to transit, the city will have a hard time applying for federal funding that requires a local match. Such programs can multiply every dollar raised locally.

Cage said CATS wouldn’t be in such a tough spot if it had started getting more funding in the ’80s or ’90s.

“CATS has had to start pretty much from ground zero,” he said.

With the recent tax, “we simply brought ourselves into the 20th century,” Tyson said.

Yes, he emphasized, not the 21st century, the 20th century.

Staff writer Andrea Gallo contributed to this report. Follow Steve Hardy on Twitter, @SteveRHardy.