CA: Muni Chief Leaving at Critical Time for Agency

San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency chief Nathaniel Ford will depart his job June 30, leaving behind a mixed legacy and tremendous challenges for his replacement.

Ford and Tom Nolan, chairman of the agency's governing board, said the decision was made jointly.

"We've agreed mutually that now is a good time for a change," Nolan told The Chronicle Wednesday. "It's going to be a big transition."

The news comes at a tumultuous time for Muni. Earlier this week an arbitrator imposed a new contract on Muni operators, prompting speculation the enraged workers might stage a wildcat strike or work slowdown that could cripple the city's transit system. So far, there has been no such action.

The governing board will meet in closed session Tuesday to formally terminate Ford's contract, which would otherwise expire in 2014. Ford, who was hired 5 1/2 years ago, met Wednesday with Muni's top managers to discuss his departure. Nolan later sent out an agencywide letter that praised Ford and reminded staffers to stay focused on their jobs during what could be an unsettling time.

Ford's negotiated severance package is worth $384,000. That's one year of his base salary of $308,837 - the highest in the city - plus deferred compensation, a payout for unused vacation time and three extra months of health benefits for Ford and his family.

Possible successorsHis successor has not been chosen. In the event one hasn't been named by the end of the month, Carter Rohan, the agency's deputy executive director, will become interim chief. Rohan and San Francisco Public Works chief Ed Reiskin, who has close ties to Mayor Ed Lee, are considered to be front-runners for the job. The seven-member governing board will make the final pick. A timeline hasn't been set.

"We need to get somebody who can hit the ground running," Nolan said. "I want somebody who actually understands the dynamic of the city. I don't think we have to look very far."

Ford moved from Atlanta to take San Francisco's top transportation job; his predecessor came from Philadelphia.

Nolan said the board and Ford have been talking for some time about making a change, and finally settled on parting ways June 30.

"We're starting a new fiscal year, we have the new contract with operators, the big projects are under way. It just seemed like a good time," Nolan said.

Ford, who said he does not yet have another job, agreed.

Ford's departure had been rumored several times over the years. In February, he was a finalist to run the two airports in the metropolitan Washington, D.C., area.

That caused some city officials to fret about Ford's commitment to his job, accelerating closed-door discussions about whether it was time for him to leave.

What got doneFord said he is proud of his accomplishments. He oversaw the opening of the T-Third light-rail extension into the city's southeastern neighborhoods and implementation of the ground-breaking SFpark parking management program that is just getting under way. The city is close to securing a full-funding agreement with the federal government for the Central Subway project to Chinatown.

He also oversaw adoption of the Transit Effectiveness Project, which included the first overhaul of Muni routes in two decades in hopes of better serving riders. The plan has not been fully implemented because of a lack of funds and the need for environmental clearance.

Some critics have complained that Ford is an absentee manager who is out of the office a lot, either on personal business or attending conferences. The agency also has been hammered by low morale.

Rafael Cabrera, head of the operators' union, said he hopes the next Muni chief will make a more concerted effort to communicate with frontline employees and listen to their gripes and suggestions. "That would go a long way," he said.

Nolan, who has said recently that management should get out into the field more, gave Ford high marks for relationships with officials at all levels of government and with community advocates.

In addition to running the nation's seventh-largest transit system, with 700,000 daily boardings, the agency oversees taxis, parking and traffic operations, and bike and pedestrian programs.

With an annual operating budget of $775 million and about 5,000 employees, the Municipal Transportation Agency touches the lives of just about every resident, worker and visitor to San Francisco. It is under constant public - and political - scrutiny.

The city's troubled transit system is riddled with reliability problems because of chronic funding shortages that have necessitated service cuts and fare hikes.

Arbitrator's rulingAnnouncement of Ford's early departure came just days after the imposition of a new contract on more than 2,000 Muni operators. The union members had rebuffed their own leadership and overwhelmingly voted down the contract the week before.

The arbitrator was allowed to impose the rejected contract because of Proposition G, which voters approved in November. Among other things, it gave managers more clout during bargaining. For example, it removed a condition that the operators be the second-highest paid in the country; instead wages are to be settled at the negotiating table.

The new contract includes a three-year wage freeze and gives managers considerably more power over discipline, schedules and other work rules.

During Ford's tenure, Muni's on-time performance rate reached an all-time high of 75 percent in early 2010, which was still short of the 85 percent mark demanded by city voters a dozen years ago. It has since dropped to 71.1 percent.

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