Capital Area Transit System CEO Bob Mirabito last week told a podcast that he suspects some people in Baton Rouge are resistant to riding the bus because they are prejudiced against his drivers, most of whom are black.
Speaking to Clay Young, who has worked with the bus agency and now hosts his own podcast, Mirabito also said he wishes his staff was more representative of the city’s demographics, which are about half black and half white, while underscoring that he personally doesn’t judge people by race.
“CATS is actually 95 percent African-American. And unfortunately our demographics don’t match Baton Rouge. I would love to have a workforce that matches the demographics of Baton Rouge because I think there are some people out there who may not ride CATS buses because they don’t like the color of an operator’s skin, … That’s a shame,” he said in the interview.
Responding to the comments, a union leader and some members of the Metro Council said they were shocked by his comments and disagreed with his assessment.
Metro Councilman John Delgado, a vocal critic of the agency’s leader, said Mirabito should apologize and be fired.
“If that’s his assessment of the potential ridership of Baton Rouge, then he’s an idiot and needs to be fired,” Delgado said. “It’s obscene. I find it offensive.”
Councilwoman C. Denise Marcelle, who called for Mirabito’s resignation last month for poor performance, said she is now calling on the board to fire him.
“If the board and my colleague who chairs the board sits there and allows that, we’ve got a real problem,” she said. She said if the CATS board does not act, she will bring up the issue at Metro Council.
Mirabito also said in the interview that he doesn’t “see the color of somebody’s skin,” adding that his administrative staff is racially diverse. He said that he doesn’t care about race as long as “everybody does their job.”
The public bus agency serves a majority black, low-income clientele who don’t have cars. For years, the agency has been under pressure to improve service on existing routes, while also attracting so-called “riders of choice” who own vehicles but opt to ride buses anyway.
The head of CATS for about a year and a half, Mirabito’s leadership has been under more public scrutiny in recent weeks, with Marcelle calling for his resignation and chastising his management style. The agency’s union also has protested his treatment of workers.
Young, who previously held a contract with the agency for media relations, posed various questions about racial tensions in the agency and perception about bus service in the hourlong interview.
Contacted by The Advocate for clarity, Mirabito stood by his comments.
“Whether the staff is made up of 95 percent African-American or white or Asian, it should be a goal to try to match the demographics of the community that we’re providing service for,” he said Monday in a phone interview.
Asked about his statements accusing people of not riding the bus because of racial prejudice, Mirabito said the same would be true if he had a majority white staff.
“If my workforce were 95 percent white, then there may be people who would not ride the bus because of the color of that person’s skin,” Mirabito said.
Metro Councilwoman Tara Wicker was in disbelief at Mirabito’s comments.
“That kind of comment, though, ‘that I don’t think people are gonna ride the bus because they see a black operator,’ I think it’s an ignorant comment to make,” Wicker said. “No administrator of an organization such as CATS should ever say something like that … that comment in itself can only hurt this community.”
She said she is sincerely hopeful that people “in this day and age” are not abstaining from riding the bus because of racial prejudice.
“That would be like, I’m not going to a restaurant because my waiter’s black, or I’m not going to go to a movie theater because the person taking my ticket is black,” she said. “Anywhere you’re going to go is going to have a diverse workforce.”
Councilwoman Donna Collins-Lewis, who is chairwoman of the CATS board, said she didn’t know how to respond when told about the comments by a reporter Monday afternoon.
“I don’t know, I’d like to have a conversation about it,” she said.
Young told The Advocate that he doesn’t think Mirabito has a problem with diversity, but he stood by the interview, which wasn’t edited.
“I don’t think he looks at talent through the prism of ethnicity, I believe that,” Young said. “But in terms of the interview on the podcast, I stand by it. It’s his honest, candid thoughts.”
Katie Guy, union president for CATS, said she was offended.
“When you say you would like to see it match the demographics of the city, that means that we need more Caucasians that African-Americans,” she said. “It irritates me. It shouldn’t matter the color of your skin. That shouldn’t matter.”
Race was just one of several issues that Mirabito discussed on the podcast, which included discussion about some of the criticism he’s faced in recent weeks.
He also talked about many of the challenges facing the agency, noting that for CATS to provide reliable service, it would need between $22 million to $40 million in funding to replace an exhausted, broken down fleet.
Mirabito said that when he accepted the job, he didn’t realize he’d be in charge of fundamentally transforming CATS.
“I thought it would be better than what it ended up being. I went in there and I did not realize what I was walking into. Nothing came out in the interview process itself that made me believe I’d come in doing a complete 180 turnaround (for the agency),” he said.
Mirabito was the second interview of Young’s new online-only podcast series called Podcast225. The comments about race can be heard at the 17-minute mark.
Staff writer Andrea Gallo contributed to this report. Follow Rebekah Allen on Twitter @rebekahallen.