CATS Chief Executive Bob Mirabito issued an apology late Tuesday afternoon for his controversial statements in an interview suggesting some people were avoiding the parish’s bus system because of racial prejudice against the predominantly black staff.

The statement came just hours after CATS Board President Donna Collins-Lewis called on Mirabito to issue an apology. It was a course reversal for the CATS leader, who just a day earlier had said he stood by his comments.

In his apology, which was issued in a news release, Mirabito maintains that his comments were taken out of context and were not offensive if listened to in their entirety.

“I apologize,” Mirabito said. “It was never my intention to offend anyone, and I am sorry that my comments on a recent podcast have distracted our community from our continued push to move our transit system forward. My comment, heard in its entirety, was not racially motivated, and I apologize that is the impression it has given people.”

Collins-Lewis also issued an apology in the news release on behalf of the agency for Mirabito’s statement. She added: “The Chief Executive Officer’s job is to continue to make improvements that have been promised to the community. The CEO reports to the Board of Directors, which is comprised of people from all areas of our community. The Board has always, and will continue to, monitor the CEO’s performance in his position.”

In an interview with The Advocate earlier in the day, Collins-Lewis said it was unclear what the next step would be for Mirabito but she is encouraging the other eight members of the Capital Area Transit System board to listen to the comments Mirabito made on the podcast before they make a decision.

“I think the comment made was unfortunate,” said Collins-Lewis, who is also a member of the Baton Rouge Metro Council. “It sends a message to the community that they don’t ride because they are prejudiced. The community was really offended by that statement.”

Two other CATS board members who returned calls Tuesday for their views say they are supporting Mirabito and felt his comments were harmless and blown out of proportion.

“I think he’s done an outstanding job, and I’m fully supportive of his continuation as CEO,” said CATS board member Jim Brandt. “We, as a board, will carefully listen to anything brought forward by council members or others and will continue to do that, but I haven’t seen anything that would suggest he should be dismissed at all.”

The Advocate reported this week that Mirabito made statements in a candid podcast interview that he thought some people in Baton Rouge were not riding the bus because they are prejudiced against his drivers, most of whom are black. He also said he wished his staff demographics represented the city’s racial makeup, which is about half black and half white, while underscoring that he does not personally judge people by their 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.

A union leader and some members of the Metro Council said they found the comments offensive, because it suggested Mirabito wants fewer black employees and was calling potential ridership racist.

Council members C. Denise Marcelle and John Delgado both called for Mirabito to be fired by the CATS board, which is in charge of hiring and firing the agency’s CEO.

Collins-Lewis has been supportive of Mirabito in the face of recent criticism of his management style in the past few weeks. But she said she planned to talk to Mirabito about his comments and discuss the issue with the board.

Asked on Monday to clarify his statements in the interview, Mirabito said he stood by his comments.

Brandt said he felt Mirabito’s comments were blown out of proportion and noted that it’s common for agencies and companies to aim for diverse workforces that are more representative of the demographics of the service area.

But, typically, when groups talk about more diverse workforces, the concern is that there are not enough minorities employed.

CATS board member Ken Perret also offered support for Mirabito. He said he didn’t think Mirabito’s statements that people weren’t riding the bus because of prejudice were accurate, but said he also didn’t find them offensive.

“I don’t understand what the big uproar is about,” Perret said. “This whole racial thing gets way blown out of hand.”

Perret said he thinks all of the criticism against Mirabito in recent weeks is meritless.

Last month, CATS union workers mounted a public protest, calling out Mirabito’s management style and saying he was endangering the public by putting unsafe buses on the roads. Marcelle called a news conference calling on him to resign, saying he is disrespectful to both his staff and elected leaders, and was failing at improving service as promised in the 2012 tax election.

“As far as Denise Marcelle getting excited, she has a lot of other things she needs to be worried about,” Perret said. “She seems to get involved in everything that has some press involved with it. She’s made some statements that are completely wrong and have no facts behind them.”

Brandt also said he was a member of the evaluation committee that ultimately recommended extending Mirabito’s contract with the agency.

“By any metric we looked at, he has done an incredible job of improving the system, putting in place policies and procedures and protocols,” Brandt said.

Other CATS board members did not return calls and emails seeking comment.

Delgado said Tuesday that if the CATS board refuses to remove Mirabito, that the Metro Council has the authority to remove the members of the board.

“We will consider every avenue under the law to remove him,” Delgado said. “He’s created circumstances now where he cannot effectively lead the system, because he told everybody that we need to accommodate our hiring practices for the benefit of racists out there in Baton Rouge — which I categorically reject.”

Together Baton Rouge, a group that took on a watchdog role over the agency after the CATS tax was passed, declined comment.

Follow Rebekah Allen on Twitter @rebekahallen. For more coverage of city-parish government, follow http://blogs.theadvocate.com/cityhallbuzz/.