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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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Simmons was assigned to the rail district for his first eight months, which meant he worked out of CBM, but was tasked with making orders and tracking down missing parts across the rail district. Beyond the fact that rail gets no respect at RTA — "It's the craphole of the system," Simmons said — no supervisor would work with him directly, he said. And there were no African-American supervisors he could appeal to for help or support. He was never given an official orientation and said that when requests for training were denied, he frequently ventured downstairs to the warehouse and mechanics' shop to learn basic information about the job.

Another material planner at the time, Michelle Berry, refused when Simmons asked her for guidance, Simmons said. His interpretation was that Berry resented the fact that they were both G26s, making comparable salaries, when she had so much more experience.

The only thing Simmons did get plenty of, he said, were reprimands for mistakes.

"It was like my mistakes would be plastered all over a billboard," he said. "I had my share of mess ups, but I kept thinking, 'What's the standard? Perfect?' They would pick me out of a lineup every time."

Not without a keen sense of irony did Simmons note that a central aspect of his position was correcting others' mistakes. But others would seldom get blamed for losing parts or shipping them to the wrong place; he'd get blamed for not finding them fast enough.

If it wasn't clear from the bi-annual evaluations that Simmons was unwelcome at CBM, an internal audit conducted in April 2014 left nothing to the imagination. Simmons said he was described as the "laziest employee at RTA" and that facts were misrepresented (or fabricated outright) to characterize him as a scourge on the authority. He said it was written, for instance, that he routinely drove his personal vehicle through the rail district at East 55th and Broadway as a shortcut to work.

"But I took the bus to work," Simmons said. "I didn't even own a vehicle at the time. And Dave Vegh knew that. He saw me getting off the bus almost every single morning. I stayed in South Euclid, and my wife would sometimes drop me off, but why would we triple our trip going down to East 55th and Broadway?"

(Scene tried to obtain the audit in question via a public records request, but RTA claimed that no such audit existed. They said on Tuesday, after our print deadline, that "there was an investigation following concerns that Wayne Simmons was not performing his job properly," and that a summary of those findings could be found in an RTA pre-termination hearing letter.)

Dave Vegh soon retired and Michelle Berry was promoted, which meant Simmons' days were numbered. He said that despite the challenges of his job, he'd managed to achieve a few notable successes: He established a spreadsheet with a warehouse supervisor to streamline the needs of the inventory department and said it was the first time such a document existed. This greatly enhanced the efficiency of the warehouse. When Simmons was transferred from rail to core parts, he said he'd cultivated positive relationships with vendors and even managed to get refunds on old parts that vendors "had no business taking back."

But with Berry in charge, he could see the writing on the wall.

"With her, my performance was just never up to par," he said. He heard from coworkers that Berry was trying to push him out, and had even started training other material planners while Simmons still had the job.

In a last-ditch effort to try something innovative, Simmons suggested that he move downstairs, from his cubicle to the warehouse.

"This way, if there was a question about a part, I wouldn't be a phone call away, I'd be a couple hundred feet away," Simmons said. "I could get my hands on parts as they arrived."

But Michelle Berry said no. And after three years and 14 days of struggle at CBM, Wayne Simmons was booted from RTA.

"I don't have to make any of this up," Simmons said. "They blackballed me and pushed me out, and never even trained me."

Asked, then, if he attempted to appeal his dismissal, Simmons said he didn't bother.

"I threw up my hands," he said. "Even if I had appealed it and they said, 'Okay, Mr. Simmons, you can have your job back,' why would I want to go back and work for her? Why would I want to work for RTA?"

What bothered Simmons most of all was the manner in which his position was filled after he'd left. Lauren Bobich, one of Michelle Berry's acolytes and personal trainees, was promptly hired for the job. She'd been a G22 inventory specialist, making $12.50 per hour, and was suddenly in Simmons' post, a G26, taking home a salary in the upper-50s.

Why this was especially irksome to Simmons: Bobich didn't have a college degree.

"All those hoops they made me jump through to prove I had my bachelor's?" Simmons said. "Lauren Bobich didn't even have her Associate's."

(RTA told Scene on Tuesday that Bobich does have her Associates, but that claim is vigorously refuted by current and former employees.)

Update 9/1/16: The RTA has now changed its story. In an email update, a spokesperson confirmed that Bobich is "still completing" her Associate's Degree, and is expected to graduate in 2017.

THE DOG AND PONY SHOW

According to current employees and one recently fired employee from RTA's HR department, filling positions with desired candidates like Lauren Bobich, qualifications notwithstanding, has become habitual at CBM.

"It's nothing but a dog and pony show," said one current employee.

To cover their tracks, RTA allegedly changes job postings (sometimes after the fact), tailoring requirements precisely to candidates they intend to hire. (Several instances were brought to Scene's attention. We'll refrain from printing specific names and positions until RTA provides documentation responding to the allegations.)

Employees say that job-posting edits are chiefly legal precautions. HR can, if challenged, dig up hiring paperwork and prove that a chosen candidate met required criteria, thereby preventing lawsuits.

Even Joe Calabrese, though he refused to comment on specific cases, admitted that job postings could be changed. He suggested that doing so was standard operating procedure.

"For any job that's open," he said, "the job is posted, and the job description is looked at to see if it needs to be modified."

Still, tailored specifications might not mean that a desired candidate is the most qualified candidate. Hiring less qualified people (and in more than one instance, according to internal sources, the least qualified person) requires more direct pressure.

At CBM, employees familiar with the process allege, management has tapped a recurring roster of panelists for the hiring process. Panelists are then instructed how to rank applicants. (Again, we'll refrain from printing specific allegations because RTA has not yet provided requested documents. Nearly three months have intervened since Scene's first requests seeking job postings, resumes and hiring documents. RTA has maintained that the documents are prepared, but that their legal department has been overtaxed with other requests and has fallen behind on document examination and information redaction.)

Joe Calabrese, then, was asked to address the allegations, but he said he had no knowledge of the individual cases.

"There's no way," he said. "We have 2,350 employees. I have no knowledge of that so I'm not going to speak to it. All I will tell you is that we have procedures and we do our best in every case to follow those procedures to the best of our ability."

One former employee who spent 20 years at CBM said that, contrary to these allegations, he didn't see abuses in the hiring panel process when he was there. He sat on panels many times, he said, and found hiring to be "fair and efficient."

Linda Krecic told Scene by phone that "95 percent of what RTA does is very straightforward."

"Sure, we make mistakes," Krecic said, speaking in general terms, "but things here are not as colorful as you think they are."

Scene has no reason to suspect that Krecic and the communications team gave anything less than a sincere effort to address our unwieldy batches of questions and records requests, but Krecic insisted throughout that the information Scene had come by was little more than gossip and vengeful untruths from "disgruntled employees bending [our] ear."

Meanwhile, Darryl Key, whose final eight years at RTA were spent at Hayden Garage, said favoritism and nepotism were so common at CBM that he was no longer even scandalized by it: "That's just one of the things they do. It's politics," he said. "It's all over the place."

With respect to McIntosh's situation, Key said he saw a cultural dynamic beyond race at play.

"He's part of this new young millennial generation," Key said. "And these millennials, they don't understand. When you deal with people from an older machine, there are tricks and games they play. And I'll be honest with you, when you're a man of color, there are things you've got to work differently than other folks, especially when they start attacking you. You've gotta cross your Ts and dot your Is. Back in my day, we were more of a captive audience. We learned how to fight and maneuver around it. But they're still playing all kinds of games."

***

THE SAGA OF #3318

Whether or not there are games afoot at CBM, ineffective employees within RTA operations can cost the authority serious money. Take, for instance, the case of Bus #3318, about which there seems to be not one solid attributable fact.

For background, the #3318 is a Compressed Natural Gas (CNG) bus purchased through a Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality (CMAQ) grant and delivered to RTA in the spring of 2015. Its stripped carcass is thought to be idling — or more like decomposing — at Hayden Garage, where vandalic ne'er-do-wells throw rocks and worse at the buses parked there too long.

Though not confirmed by RTA — RTA answered no questions and confirmed nothing related to #3318 before our interview with Calabrese, professing to be "stumped" by our line of inquiry — the #3318 is presumed to have been among the first of 60 40-foot-long, Gillig-brand buses purchased at a cost of $28.9 million as part of the grant (reported by the Natural Gas Vehicle organ NGV Today). That's just less than $482,000 a pop.

Some time in the late autumn of 2015, shortly after the most recent hires at CBM described above, the #3318 was alleged by current employees to have been stripped for parts to repair other CNG buses at Hayden Garage. Stripping a bus for parts is a last resort under ordinary circumstances, but doing so to a brand-new bus is bewildering, especially because (via a Hayden source) it complicates the warranties.

"These buses are still under warranty," said the employee. "But because these parts that we're trying to turn in for warranty don't match the serial number, RTA is forced to purchase those parts instead of getting a warranty part."

The situation at Hayden was described to Scene as dire — hence our unsuccessful efforts to contact Dr. Caver. Among other things, it is RTA's largest garage but has the smallest stockroom, and parts have regularly been arriving late. Exacerbating issues caused by delays, hazarded one employee, might be inexperienced mechanics. Under pressure to repair buses to meet expected pull-out times, mechanics may have removed parts from the #3318 experimentally trying to diagnose issues and fix other buses.

Competing theories about the #3318's dismantling have circulated among RTA employees. One blames new CBM employees for incompetence, one blames a particular employee who might have an interest in making another particular employee appear less equipped for leadership; but RTA wouldn't entertain any of them. They wouldn't even confirm that the bus was no longer in service. Joe Calabrese, the moment we uttered "3318" in our interview, professed to have no knowledge.

"I don't know," he said. "What I've heard ... I'll tell you what I've heard. I've heard that there was a CNG bus, one of the newer buses, whose windows got broken by vandals and the windows were or are on backorder and while that bus was out of service because we couldn't put the bus in service without windows, another part or parts were needed to keep other similar buses in service, serving the public. And although we don't like to do that, if you have to take a part off of one bus that is down for other maintenance reasons and put it in another bus, to serve the public, as opposed to having two buses not serving the public, that's something we would do. Other than that, I have no comment.

"Matter of fact, I talked to the salesman, the representative from the company," Calabrese continued, unprompted. "And I said, 'I know we've got some windows on backorder, how's that coming?' And he said, 'Windows are a long lead-time item.' And I had that conversation with one of our sales guys last week because I heard the bus was down for windows that were broken by vandals."

It's certainly possible that Calabrese talked with a sales guy last week — Scene has been inquiring repeatedly about this issue — but our sources said the #3318 was stripped months ago, possibly in late 2015. If the stripping happened after windows were broken by vandals, as Calabrese said he's heard, new windows would be a very long lead-time item indeed. Scene tried to clarify: Additional parts from #3318 were used to repair other buses, to maximize the number of —

"I don't know if other parts or a part," said Calabrese. "I'm not sure. Again, if you have two cars that are exactly the same in your garage and one is down because it needs brakes and the other car that's working needs windshield wipers, would you take the windshield wipers off the car that's broken for brakes to put it on the other car so you can drive it safely in the rain? The answer is probably yes. And that's the type of thing that happened."

(On Tuesday afternoon, RTA spokeswoman Linda Krecic said that the #3318 bus would be "back on the street Thursday."

THE BUDGET

"Now for the bad news," said commuter Marco Fikaris on March 21, at the first of RTA's 16 public meetings on proposed fare hikes and service cuts. "I haven't heard anything from anybody here about administrative cuts. I mean, I'm assuming you looked at this."

Protesters gather outside of RTA headquarters.
  • Protesters gather outside of RTA headquarters.

The capacity crowd chuckled. The public comments until that moment had been somber and direct. Prominent among them were stories of physical struggle and financial strife, pleas to maintain routes on the chopping block, and assurances that the 25-cent, one-way fare increase would be devastating for low-income, transit-dependent riders.

Several Paratransit riders hobbled painstakingly to the microphone to make their comments with the aid of walker or personal assistant. Their labored treks across the RTA board room on the first floor of the main office, in full view of the public and the suited execs, invited visions of other riders and the longer walks — half or three-quarters of a mile — that they might now have to endure on their way to the nearest bus stop.

On June 7, of course, RTA's board of trustees voted 8-1 in favor of fare increases and service cuts in order to fill a $7 million budget hole. In late May, Cuyahoga County Council joined the discussion and urged the RTA to exhaust all possible options before casting a final vote.

But what options, RTA might have wondered, were there left to exhaust? It was the proverbial 11th hour, far too late to meaningfully consider alternate funding sources.

Calabrese's favorite punching bag, during these months of handwringing, was the state of Ohio. In public meetings, he often presented a graphic showing the negligible contributions from Columbus. In 2015, Ohio contributed a mere $7.3 million for public transit statewide (63 cents per capita), among the lowest in the nation and a drastic decrease from its contribution of $43 million in 2002.

And it's true that this is lamentable. Infuriating, even. But when Calabrese explained the situation to Cleveland City Council's transportation committee, Ward 2 councilman Zack Reed rolled his eyes and essentially told Calabrese to get real. It's not like the die-hard Republican state legislature is suddenly going to about-face on public transit and flood Cuyahoga County with dollars. Reed told Calabrese that the region was going to have to be serious about raising funds on its own.

Sixty percent of RTA's operating budget comes from a one-percent county sales tax, and that tax is no longer generating the same revenue that it did back in the 1970s and '80s. Population loss and the great recession has dampened the region's commercial vibrancy and crippled its spending power. When the state stops collecting tax on Medicaid-managed care services next year, RTA will find itself in an even deeper financial hole, one that could result in a 7- to 10-percent service reduction and around 170 layoffs.

In short, money is and will continue to be extremely tight, and it's the region's overtaxed transit riders who find themselves having to foot an increased percentage of the bill. They're frustrated by the recent fare hike and terrified by the prospect of the additional hike in 2018. There's an expectation that if they're being called upon to pay an increased share, the Transit Authority itself must have done everything in its power to optimize operations, tighten belts, and prevent this additional burden on riders.

But the board would prefer to point fingers at the state of Ohio, move the ball to someone else's court, tell voters that the state of transit is in their hands. If only they'd write passionate letters to their representatives; if only they'd get out there on election day and put legislators who care about public transit in office ... .

Meanwhile, the board itself wouldn't even agree to a sunset clause on increased fares. Newburgh Heights mayor Trevor Elkins, the newest board member and lone nay vote, proposed one. His thinking was that when RTA found a longterm sustainable funding source, the fare hikes should be discontinued. He told Scene it put the onus on the board, where it ought to be, to find a solution. But his suggestion was dismissed out of hand. Board member Georgine Welo called the clause irresponsible, though she didn't elaborate.

Meanwhile, transit riders need assurances that RTA has examined its own spending. Marco Fikaris was voicing that message on March 21. He spoke with a heavy accent and poked at RTA leaders with a refreshing wit, given the gloomy circumstances.

"You must have looked at this and looked at that," Fikaris said, "at the salaries and everything else, before making these cuts in service and routes. But could someone please address that? It doesn't have to be publicly. You could email me. But I'd like that information."

So would we all, Mr. Fikaris. So would we all.

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