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The Firing of Two Mid-level African-Americans at RTA, and a Longtime Cultural Chasm in the Organization's Operations

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For the general public, the Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority (RTA) is merely a brand name on the buses and trains that make up the system. And so if the buses and trains are safe and on time, what else matters? Why question the brand? But RTA has been in the news a lot lately: First, the decision by the board of trustees, enacted earlier this month, to raise fares and cut a small number of routes in order to plug a $7 million budget hole; later, the forbidding news about changes to Ohio's tax laws, which will result in even deeper financial holes and deeper service cuts in 2017 and 2018; finally, the decision by Mayor Frank Jackson to gather traffic data downtown in order to determine if the new $50 million Public Square, designed specifically with RTA buses in mind, might be better off without them.

Joe Calabreese - PHOTO BY SAM ALLARD
  • Photo by Sam Allard
  • Joe Calabreese

You may have heard the name Joe Calabrese. He's RTA's CEO and general manager. He stands atop a workforce of roughly 2,350, many of whom work in operations. They drive the buses, they fix the buses, they order the parts. Several current and former employees came to Scene to talk about what they see as problems at RTA. Though RTA maintains a clean public face, it is allegedly dirtied by the same behind-the-scenes muck that has afflicted this region's governmental and quasi-governmental entities for decades: racism, patronage, incompetence. Many of these issues suggest not only a flippancy with company policies, but a flippancy with taxpayer dollars.

THE MAFIA

Bryan McIntosh was notified on September 15, 2015, that he'd been fired from RTA. Technically, he'd been placed on "crisis suspension, pending termination," but all that meant was there'd be a hearing the following week to make things official.

By mid-September, the 30-year-old McIntosh had been working at RTA for more than a year and needed no further evidence that his relationship with superiors at the Central Bus Maintenance Facility (CBM) had drifted beyond rescue or repair. This wasn't even the first time he'd been fired in the past six months.

McIntosh was a quality assurance specialist, working at the expansive CBM on Woodland and Woodhill, RTA's operational nerve center, if not its headquarters. There, McIntosh was assigned to liaise with Hayden Garage, RTA's bus garage in East Cleveland, and with Paratransit, the service for riders with disabilities. Like the other employees who worked "upstairs" at CBM, McIntosh's job was administrative. He did a lot of paperwork and made a lot of phone calls: reconciling order discrepancies, ensuring the successful delivery of parts shipments and, in his words, "inspect[ing] and solv[ing] issues pertaining to all things dealing with operations."

But from McIntosh's vantage, the office environment at CBM was strained, adversarial, cliquey to a fault. And acceptance and success were particularly elusive for a guy like him, one of the few black faces in the cubicles. He didn't know it when he got hired, but he'd entered a pernicious sphere controlled by what is known, among RTA's operations rank and file, as the CBM Mafia.

(Note: 'CBM Mafia' is a nickname, and doesn't in this instance connote organized criminal activity.)

If you ask current employees or those who've recently parted ways with RTA, the CBM Mafia goes all the way up the operations chain of command. Not all the way up to CEO and general manager Joe Calabrese, perhaps; but Calabrese, who makes $270,000 per year, is regarded by employees as the agency's figurehead, a politician more than a manager, "the ribbon-cutting" and "handshake" guy who one former employee hastened to add was "actually pretty nice." With his contract up in 2020, the perception of Calabrese is that of a man clutching his boogie board as he rides the wave of his career to shore. He's brooking the indignities of a budget collapsing beneath his feet by seeking Band-Aids — to use the popular policy metaphor — and reflecting on the bright spots of his 16-and-a-half years in RTA's top position. He's certainly not making a stink about the city's campaign to remove buses from Public Square.

"Really, the Mayor just wants to do the right thing," said Calabrese, on that topic, in a recent interview with Scene.

But the CBM Mafia does reportedly go all the way up to RTA's No. 2 man, Michael York, the deputy general manager of operations. Like almost all of RTA's upper management, York neither lives in Cleveland nor takes public transit to work (though all RTA employees get to ride for free). York drives 35 miles from his home in Stow up to RTA headquarters on West Sixth, and he enjoys the second-largest salary ($187,280) in the organization. York is part of the executive management team, a cabinet of divisional directors who all report directly to Calabrese. And though Calabrese told Scene that York is not officially the No. 2 — "There is me. There is no 'Assistant Me,'" he said — operations is nonetheless RTA's biggest division, and for better or worse employees view York as RTA's second-in-command.

At CBM, York has purportedly been grooming Ronald Baron, the director of fleet management, to take over as DGM of operations. York is thought to be on his way out, after all. The rumor was that York had intended to retire in 2015, but when Cleveland was selected as the host city for the RNC, he decided he'd stay on to oversee operations during the convention. Calabrese disputed this.

"All Mike York has told me is that when he decides to leave, he will give me adequate notice so that we can have a smooth transition period," he said. "I have no knowledge if that's this year, next year or in five years."

But the speculation is that York's hot to trot, and when he leaves, RTA will have a critical hole to fill.

"Operations covers everything," Bryan McIntosh told Scene in one of more than 10 interviews with him conducted for this story. "Bus routes, drivers, mechanics, materials, rails, BRT. You get a new operations GM, it's like getting a new King. It's a changing of the guard."

And York is presumed to want to coronate a successor in his own image. Ron Baron's his protege, formerly a logistics guy with L'Oreal, but a CBM Mafia capo since he was hired in September 2005.

Baron's not the only presumed candidate for York's job, though. Per RTA policy, the position will be publicly posted and all applicants will be ranked. The top three candidates will be interviewed (in theory), and their responses will be rated numerically by a panel of current employees. Calabrese put the odds that the position would be filled internally at 50-50. Another former employee who spent 20 years at CBM agreed.

"It's a coin flip," he said.

But others say it's all but certain RTA will make an internal hire. Calabrese himself said that RTA, "like most good companies," encourages and promotes the upward mobility of its employees. And if Ron Baron's in one corner, Floun'say Caver's in the other.

RTA board chairman George Dixon III - PHOTO COURTESY OF RTA
  • Photo courtesy of RTA
  • RTA board chairman George Dixon III

Dr. Floun'say Caver is the district director of Hayden Garage. (Note: The city of Cleveland's historical segregation — West = White, East = Black — is dramatized in the personnel of RTA's two bus garages: Triskett is white, Hayden is black). McIntosh calls Dr. Caver "RTA's Obama." He's a rising star among Cleveland's black political class: Ph.D.-credentialed; member of Leadership Cleveland's 2017 bumper crop; and, for good measure, an Alpha Phi Alpha, the same fraternity as RTA board chairman George Dixon. Caver's not going anywhere, but the question for the CBM Mafia is just how fast he'll rise.

At stake is the very culture of the Regional Transit Authority. Employees, already hip to the entrenched old-boys-club mentality of RTA upper management, fear that if Baron gets the job, he'll operate with what they described as York's political-patronage style.

When contacted by Scene, Floun'say Caver forwarded all on- and off-record questions to Linda Krecic, RTA's media relations manager, and to Michael York.

Page 2, Sec. 100.05, of RTA's most recent employee manual decrees that all media requests be directed to the office of media relations, which isn't unusual, but it means that current employees who spoke with Scene did so anonymously, and even then with fear of retribution.

"I'm sitting here praying to god that some of these things won't make it obvious who's saying what, or that my name won't pop up," said one current employee familiar with RTA's personnel across all districts. "People are scared and fed up, but they would never say a word."

The race for York's job is still just theoretical, though it may be having tangible effects on the organization — see The Saga of #3318, below — but for now, Baron is much more concerned about Bryan McIntosh.

McIntosh's lawsuit against RTA is currently alive in federal court, and Baron wants it dead. Rumor has it RTA is trying to get the suit settled without a trial. No surprise there: Though Baron wasn't McIntosh's direct supervisor, he coordinated the termination. Publicity of the case could damage Baron's eventual candidacy for York's job, especially because part of the lawsuit — two of the seven total counts — alleges racial discrimination. And even though there's currently almost zero African-American representation in CBM management, (an estimated two of more than 70 non-union employees), Baron likely wouldn't withstand a court co-signature on existing perceptions of bigotry. And he certainly wouldn't stand a chance against Dr. Caver, given that the operations DGM oversees a workforce of drivers and service workers who are predominantly black.

The firing of McIntosh, along with other alleged HR practices at CBM, are all the more significant now, given RTA's grim financial outlook.

One might argue that, at least with respect to Bryan McIntosh, Ron Baron should have seen the thorny situation on the horizon. But on the other hand, why would he? The firing exemplified, rather than departed from, recent alleged HR practices at CBM. The Mafia just never expected McIntosh to put up a fight.

***

BAD BRAKES

Bryan McIntosh was initially hired by RTA in August 2014. And he wasn't fired for the first time until the following May, shortly after he'd filed a discrimination complaint with the office of Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO).

"Since I started working here at RTA," McIntosh wrote in a letter to an EEO rep dated April 20, 2015, "my experience hasn't been the best one."

McIntosh had benefitted from connections with black political families locally, but before his gig at RTA he'd done well enough on his own. He was a Wright State alum; an Air Force reservist; one of the original founders of Social Society Cleveland, the local networking organization for young professionals. And he viewed RTA, like a lot of young ambitious black Clevelanders do, as a pathway to power, not just a steady job but a foot in the door. Plus, it was good money. With McIntosh's college degree, military background and recent sewer district experience, he qualified for the Grade-25 position (G25), one that paid $45,000 to $55,000 per year.

You may have seen McIntosh's name in the news. Shortly before he was hired, he had been violently assaulted outside the Vada Nightclub on St. Clair by Kevin Conwell Jr., the son of Cleveland city councilman Kevin Conwell and county councilwoman Yvonne Conwell. Around 3 a.m. on July 5, Conwell Jr. skidded into the Vada parking lot, headlights afire, and sprang at McIntosh with a hammer. (Girl problems.)

So McIntosh arrived at work with a scar on his forehead — a wee United Kingdom above his right eyebrow — and a target on his back. But even without the external factors, his work experience would've been a challenge.

According to the EEO account, in his first month on the job, co-workers referred to him pejoratively as an "affirmative action hire." He began to see his supervisor, Frank Campbell, spying on him through file cabinets and windows, a practice he might've interpreted as comedic if it weren't so "creepy, uncomfortable as well as embarrassing." McIntosh wasn't sure why, but the spying continued. He notified CBM upper management — Dan Dietrich, the manager of fleet planning and engineering, and Ron Baron — of his discomfort, but nothing was done.

Campbell, meanwhile, habitually wrote up McIntosh for minor infractions: arriving late to work, for instance, even though McIntosh's contract permitted flexible hours. Moreover, Campbell would reportedly go weeks without communicating with McIntosh. Still, McIntosh completed RTA's standard six-month probationary period and was alarmed that even afterward, Campbell's behavior persisted. He complained to upper management on several occasions.

"But their response was that Frank [was] a weird person and you have to play the game to get on his good side," he wrote.

The straw that broke the camel's back, in the EEO account, was a business trip to San Francisco during which Campbell made several disparaging remarks about the Quran and Muslims. McIntosh, though not particularly devout, was a practicing Muslim at the time and took offense.

"[Campbell] has a paranoia about them taking over the country and how the Quran will be in every hotel and school building," he wrote. "I became even more deeply concerned about who I was working for ... .

"At this time, I no longer believe my relationship with Frank Campbell can be fixed or mediated. I am formally requesting a transfer to a different work location, or [that] RTA re-evaluate Frank Campbell's qualifications to see if he still qualifies to be in a position of his status."

On May 7, 2015, RTA's EEO office notified CBM management of the investigation into Campbell. The very next day, McIntosh was placed on crisis suspension, pending termination — effectively fired —and a hearing was scheduled, per protocol. But at the hearing, the limp charges against McIntosh, that he had "turned in forms late," proved to be untrue, and McIntosh was reinstated. He promptly amended his EEO complaint to include a retaliation claim.

The next few months were the most tense and frustrating of McIntosh's professional career. The silence from his superiors at CBM felt strategic, he said. He described feeling ignored and excluded from everything. And it wasn't just a feeling. Among other things, he'd been removed from the departmental trips to California, where the quality assurance team was sent to inspect buses before a major purchase. RTA sent the department's other three quality assurance specialists, but not McIntosh.

A mediation was required. And so on August 31, the EEO office informed both McIntosh and CBM management that theirs had been scheduled for September 9. No dice, said McIntosh. He was an Air Force reservist and would be away that week on military orders. No problem, the EEO office replied. The mediation was rescheduled for September 15.

At some point between Sep. 8 and Sep. 11, while McIntosh was gone, Ron Baron asked the EEO office to postpone the meeting yet again, suggesting that mediation might no longer be necessary. EEO, taking the suggestion in good faith, postponed the mediation to a later date: "TBA."

Meanwhile, on Sept. 9, Frank Campbell allegedly discovered defective brake pads, pads which allegedly came from a box that Bryan McIntosh had okayed on August 31. McIntosh, who was out of the office, was unable to verify the credibility of the claim, but when he returned to work he was notified first, on Sept. 14, that the EEO mediation had been canceled and second, on Sept. 15, that he'd been fired for okaying defective parts.

At the termination hearing the following week, McIntosh showed up with a lawyer and demanded evidence proving that the parts were defective: Could RTA produce the parts themselves? Were there photos? Was there anything beyond McIntosh's own inspection form and the word of Baron, Campbell and Dietrich that the pads were somehow less than adequate?

There was not, and yet word came down two weeks later: McIntosh had been officially terminated.

McIntosh managed to secure a year of benefits when the Ohio Department of Jobs and Family Services determined that he'd been fired without just cause. RTA appealed that decision, but the Unemployment Compensation Review Commission sided with McIntosh, especially since, as hearing officer Jared Wade noted in his report, RTA had abandoned the brake-pads narrative.

And with good reason.

As a quality assurance specialist, McIntosh was intimately familiar with RTA protocol as it pertained to defective parts. When you got bad parts, you shipped them back to get replacements.

"Quality assurance has to return the parts," McIntosh told Scene. "It's policy."

So he got the order number of the alleged defective brake pads and contacted AxleTech International, the supplier, to inquire about the order.

"She got a little panicked on the phone," McIntosh smiled as he recalled the conversation with the AxleTech rep. "But no, man, nothing was ever returned."

ANOTHER ONE BITES DUST

Shortly after Bryan McIntosh was fired for the first time, another black employee at CBM was unceremoniously shown the door. His name was Wayne Simmons, and he was a material planner. He was fired on May 28, 2015, for poor performance, having been advised through his tenure, and indeed at the end of it, that he wasn't "innovative enough."

Simmons had been hired in 2012, though he almost wasn't. The material planner position was a G26 and required a college degree. RTA claimed on Tuesday that the position does not now, nor did it ever require a college degree, but that's at odds with Simmons' version. He said RTA wanted to verify that he was a college graduate.

Simmons had graduated from the University of Phoenix in January 2011, but due to flaws in the online university's "processing," he'd never received a physical diploma.

"I was told that my transcript wasn't good enough," Simmons told Scene, describing the hiring process. "They said they needed the actual diploma."

Simmons managed to get the dean of Phoenix to send a signed letter to RTA, certifying that Simmons was a graduate and that the lack of a diploma was merely an administrative hiccup on their end. But to Simmons' surprise, the letter didn't pass muster. Only after he'd received the diploma in the mail and sent it to RTA was he offered the position.

"I got a call the day after," he said. "So that's how I knew they were so particular about needing that college degree."

Much like McIntosh, Simmons' experience at CBM began on a sour note, and didn't much improve. He said that on his first day, he was told that his boss, inventory planner Dave Vegh, hadn't wanted to hire him at all. Vegh was an adjunct at Cleveland State University and had been eyeing one of his former students for the position, Simmons said. But RTA's hiring panel had ruled that Simmons was the more qualified candidate.

(Note: The running joke and Catch-22 at CBM is that if you're trying to get a job there and you're not a friend or family member of the CBM Mafia, well, then you'd better be a diversity hire. But if you're a diversity hire, once you arrive, all you can do is bide your time until they find a way to get rid of you.

Darryl Key left RTA several years ago, but worked there for 27 years and called CBM's atmosphere "unbelievable" in this respect. "There's some people of color who don't pull their weight," Key said. "And I'm not going to make excuses for them. You've gotta do your job. But there are just as many whites not pulling their weight, and they're not getting wrote up.")

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