Baton Rouge Metro Councilwoman C. Denise Marcelle, who has previously been one of the city bus system’s most vocal supporters, held a news conference Thursday calling for the resignation of CATS CEO Bob Mirabito for what she described as lack of leadership, mistreatment of employees and failure to deliver on bus services promised in the 2012 CATS election.
She said Mirabito and Capital Area Transit System management are using the additional funds generated by the tax to create new services for the wealthy areas of the parish while failing to provide increases in services to the poorest neighborhoods, which are most reliant on the bus service.
“He has focused his attention and the resources of CATS on the wealthier Baton Rouge community,” Marcelle said.
She noted that CATS has created new routes serving the Garden District and L’Auberge Casino, but service in Scotlandville — one of the poorest neighborhoods in the city with the highest concentration of people reliant on the bus system — has only one route.
Marcelle said Mirabito is managing the bus system with “fear and intimidation.”
“I believe a sense of fear has come over the people of CATS,” she said. “If you speak out and tell something, then you may be fired or suspended.”
The councilwoman was joined Thursday by CATS union leaders, some of whom recently were suspended by Mirabito for their involvement in an employee protest against the agency last week. Katie Guy, union president, said she requested time off to protest, but administration told her that, because her leave was not officially approved, she was being punished for protesting while on the clock.
CATS employees protested the agency last week, claiming that management was neglecting maintenance of the buses and allowing unsafe buses on the roads.
Marcelle also was joined by union officials from the local chapters of the Service Employees International Union and the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO).
CATS System Board Chairwoman Donna Collins-Lewis, who also is a councilwoman, released a short statement offering support of Mirabito ahead of the conference.
“We are committed to making sure our riders remain the focus of all that we do as an agency. Bob Mirabito has shown us through the improvements made over the past year that he has the same commitment,” Collins-Lewis said in a news release issued by CATS. “We have protocols and procedures in place to address any employee relations concerns that may rise to the surface. Any issues that occur will come to the board’s attention in the proper manner, following those protocols.”
Mirabito also issued a statement in anticipation of Marcelle’s criticism.
“CATS has been making tremendous progress over the past year, and now is not the time to derail that progress. CATS has strengthened its offerings externally, and now has turned its attention to improving internal protocols,” Mirabito said. “It’s time for us to focus on continuing improvements that work toward the betterment of all our community. If the agency were not making efforts to improve, the community as a whole would be disappointed.”
Marcelle said Mirabito’s decision to punish union workers for protesting is a retaliation tactic that is tantamount to a “violation of their civil rights” and “a violation of the Whistleblower Act.”
She said CATS is failing to deliver on its promises to taxpayers. She said the GPS system for smartphones doesn’t work, despite Mirabito’s claims otherwise. She also took issue with the growing budget for administrative costs for the agency.
“That’s money that could be used for putting buses on the streets,” she said.
At least one other Baton Rouge Metro Council member came to Mirabito’s defense. Ryan Heck, who previously sat on the board that hired Mirabito, said he felt Marcelle was overstepping her boundaries.
“As I read it, our responsibility as council members is to approve the routes and fares of CATS. I don’t see anything about getting involved in contract negotiations,” Heck said. “From my view, Bob Mirabito is holding people accountable. The culture is changing, so that culture is fighting back and Ms. Marcelle is on the wrong side of this one.”
In 2012, when CATS was seeking a property tax to prop up the cash-strapped bus system, Marcelle was on the front line campaigning for the agency. She was a supporter of former CEO Brian Marshall, who was pressured to resign, and after his departure, she became less visible with the agency.
But she said she’s since been dragged back into the fray because of complaints from riders and employees in recent weeks.
Mirabito was hired in 2013 with no transit experience. He was a businessman with a background in health care and telecommunications. Late last year, the CATS board applauded his work and said they are moving forward with negotiating a long-term, multiyear contract to retain him.