Quietly, the board of the Charleston Area Regional Transportation Authority voted in June for a change in leadership that will cut costs in the short run and could signify a shift in the bus system's priorities in the long run.
Effective July 1, Ron Mitchum, executive director of the Berkeley Charleston Dorchester Council of Governments (BCDCOG, or COG for short), took over the management of CARTA at no cost to the transportation authority. Under the terms of the agreement, Mitchum will continue in his role as head of the COG while making "all decisions as it relates to personnel, budget, contracts, and any other needs that may arise" at CARTA. The agreement also states that the COG will provide accounting and transit planning services to CARTA.
As community leaders raised accusations in recent weeks that the Charleston County School District Board of Trustees was unfair and un-transparent in its hiring of a new superintendent, the change in leadership at CARTA took place without a national search, without public input, and without so much as a press release about the decision until July 10.
The last time CARTA hired an executive director was in 2011, when the board promoted Christine Wilkinson from within the transit authority. Some members of the board at the time, including Mt. Pleasant Mayor Linda Page, insisted that the board should have conducted a national candidate search before making its decision.
Wilkinson stepped down from her post in July 2014 when police arrested her on a disorderly conduct charge outside of a downtown hotel. The CARTA board appointed transportation planner Jeff Burns to serve as interim executive director in addition to his previous role at the transportation authority.
With the signing of the management agreement, Burns has returned to working just one job, and CARTA no longer has its own executive director. Depending who you ask, this amounts to either a worthwhile cost-cutting measure or a leadership vacuum.
Attorney William Hamilton, head of the advocacy group Best Friends of Lowcountry Transit, has been critical of the board's decisions in the past, including the hiring of Wilkinson without a national search. Hamilton is often one of the only non-board members in the room at CARTA board meetings, and he says he didn't know about the latest leadership change until a bus driver passed along a rumor he had heard via a union leader.
"Leadership for our transit system is every bit as important as leadership for our school district or any other major public concern," Hamilton says. "It should be selected after full participation of the larger community in an open, transparent, and public process."
CARTA board chairman Elliott Summey, who will step down as chairman but remain on the board starting in August, says the management agreement could help solve a few of CARTA's problems, both short-term and long-term. The COG is a designated recipient for federal highway funds in the tri-county area, meaning that it distributes grant money to both CARTA and the Berkeley-Charleston-Dorchester Rural Transportation Management Association, which runs the TriCounty Link service in outlying areas.
"CARTA's got a couple of issues: 1. It needs to be more regional, 2. It has money problems," Summey says. "So how do you solve those things? Well, Ron [Mitchum] and that crowd at the COG are already doing this same service for the RTMA ... There are folks over at COG or RTMA, and we don't need to add a bunch of new personnel to fill our needs." Summey estimates CARTA can save a half-million dollars in operating costs by eliminating the executive director position and sharing some costs with the COG and the RMTA in the future.
In the long term, Summey says CARTA might work even more closely with the COG and the RTMA.
"Hopefully, this is a trial run to see how well we can make the organizations mesh and to see if we can get them consolidated and see if we can make one new organization that works for everybody so we're not duplicating services," Summey says.
The COG has already helped CARTA conduct operational studies to identify little-used and inefficient routes in the bus system. The CARTA board previously voted in June to approve some route cuts and changes following recommendations from the operational study, estimating that the changes could save about a half-million dollars per year.
As for Mitchum, whose management contract with CARTA runs through Sept. 31, 2016, he says he plans to root out more inefficiencies in the system in the next phase of the operational study.
"As I see it, you want to make sure you've got a good, solid, efficient base and it's operating as efficiently as you can, you're getting as good a return on that investment as you can, and then have a method, a process, and a plan to grow the system to meet the growing need out there," Mitchum says. According to Mitchum, a draft of the latest operational analysis findings should be available by September.
"We're hoping to improve connection with TriCounty Link, the smaller provider that brings folks in from the rural areas, trying to make it easier for folks to come in from the rural areas to jobs in North Charleston and downtown," Mitchum says.
What happens when CARTA's 15-month management contract with the COG ends? It's anybody's guess. But Mike Seekings, secretary and treasurer of the CARTA board, says the bus system is going to need its own dedicated leader eventually.
"Ultimately, we're going to have to have not an interim executive director; we're going to have to have a full-time position," Seekings says. "But in the meantime we're not panicked about it. We're certainly conscious of it, and we know we need to do something about it, but we're not going to just jump in and hire someone."