At a meeting tomorrow, SFMTA’s governing board is expected to strap on Nat Ford’s golden parachute and allow him to walk away from his position as the head of the city’s beleaguered transit agency with $384,000. This severance package, derived from Ford’s year salary of just over $300,000 plus $75,000, has been a source of consternation around San Francisco as many attempt to balance their desire for new leadership at the agency with a disinclination toward awarding large sums of money to a largely reviled figure deemed by many to have been only partially committed to ensuring San Francisco’s complex transit programs were run both efficiently and effectively.
Even though Ford officially resigned, and thus the city only technically owes him $75,000 as per his contract, many agree that what was claimed to be a mutually agreed upon resignation was really the city’s way of ushering out Ford in a manner allowing him to save face and to more easily secure another position elsewhere. The package the city awarded the outgoing transit chief was practically, dollar for dollar, the same as what they would have had to pay Ford had they simply handed him a pink slip.
Long-brewing discontent with Ford appeared to come to a head when, earlier this year, he very publicly sought a position running Washington D.C.’s airport authority. While Ford was eventually rebuffed in his efforts to land that job, it seemed to solidify long-circulating rumors that he already had one foot out the door. After the D.C. diss, however, the voices insisting Ford get the boot became a clarion call.
In retrospect, the real question wasn’t if Ford would leave, rather whether the city would be willing to buy out the remaining two and a half years of his contract to get him to do so. Interestingly, it was reportedly Mayor Lee who pushed the SFMTA board to pull the trigger and do whatever was needed to push Ford out.
Despite a conspicuous public silence on the question of SFTMA’s leadership, Lee was, it’s been reported, privately displeased with Ford searching for another job while still the highest paid public official in San Francisco. The mayor apparently wouldn’t stand for someone running the agency with less than “150 percent commitment” and saw Ford’s nearly $400,000 severance package as a small price to pay to ensure quality leadership for the transit agency.
Ford’s golden parachute led the Bay Guardian’s Tim Redmond to wonder about the larger phenomenon of mandatory severance clauses being inserted into the contracts of other public officials around the city. Redmond wrote that the head of the Transbay Terminal Project currently has one, as did former Public Utilities Commission chief Susan Leal–which made news in 2008 when Mayor Newsom unceremoniously gave her the boot.
A Chronicle editorial on Saturday took the radical position that whoever next holds SFMTA’s reins needs to be, “a nimble expert and manager who can take heaps of plans and warring interest groups and give the city reliable transit choices.”
In a similar editorial over the weekend, the Examiner went into a little more depth. The piece gave Ford credit for, “[making] Muni somewhat better–just not nearly better enough.”
It went on to criticize Ford as a well-connected “transit executive star” who never fully engaged with the position and instead saw it as nothing more than a stepping stone for a bigger, not to mention higher-paying, position.
That he was more interested in career advancement than making Muni work is quickly becoming the standard line on Ford’s shortcomings as SFMTA director. It is largely why, unlike in the city’s nationwide search that ended with Ford’s selection in 2006, SFMTA board president Tom Nolan says this time the position will be filled locally.
Apparently, the mayor’s personal pick for the job is Department of Public Works Director Ed Reskin. However, in addition to Reskin, the other potential candidate is SFMTA Executive Deputy Director Carter Rohan.
While Rohan has the advantage of becoming the agency’s acting director if the board doesn’t finalize a decision by the time Ford steps down at the end of this month, some doubt his viability for a job as all-consuming as this one, as his family reportedly lives in Texas and he spends a great deal of time there.