Some Metro Board Members Want to Refocus Search for New System Chief

March 2
Days after Metro’s search for a new general manager took an odd turn, with the three finalists for the job withdrawing from consideration, some members of the transit authority’s board of directors said Monday the setback could be a blessing in disguise.The process of finding a replacement for retired general manager Richard Sarles began in the fall. Since then, problems with the agency’s financial structure have become highly evident, and a fatal smoke incident in a subway tunnel Jan. 12 revealed serious shortcomings in Metro’s emergency readiness and safety culture.

Now, with the board forced to start from scratch in seeking a leader, some members said they want to shift the emphasis of the search. As part of the reboot, they said, they want to focus on a fresh batch of candidates whose skills are more suited to fixing problems that have come to light in the transit system in recent months.

Sarles, who left Metro in January, had been hired as general manager at perhaps the agency’s lowest point, after a 2009 Red Line crash killed nine people. In September, when he announced his impending retirement, board members were effusive in their admiration, lauding him for guiding Metro out of dysfunction.

Several board members predicted that finding a replacement would take a relatively short time and that the next boss would not have to make major changes. It was thought that Metro was headed in the right direction, in terms of improving rail operations and infrastructure, and that the new chief executive would follow the course charted by Sarles.

“What Sarles was commended for, what he was praised for up and down, was imbuing a safety culture in the organization and moving forward with the state-of-good repair program that came out of the Red Line disaster,” one board member said Monday. But for some members, that perception of Sarles’s tenure “has really changed” in recent weeks.

Considering the myriad safety and technical problems in the rail system that were revealed by the Jan. 12 incident, “my mind-set is, we’re no longer looking for another Richard Sarles,” the member said. Like others on the Metro board, this member asked not to be identified in order to speak candidly.

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