AC Transit General Manager Rick Fernandez abruptly resigned last week, saying he wanted to spend more time with his family. But a majority of the agency's board members had grown disgruntled with Fernandez in the past year and didn't attempt to change his mind. His resignation came just two days after the board voted to effectively end the agency's controversial relationship with Belgian bus maker, Van Hool.
Longtime board member Greg Harper said "there was pressure building on the board" against Fernandez, although he said there was "no precipitating event" that prompted board members to become unhappy with him. Harper added, however, that some board members were frustrated that after months of discussing debilitating service cuts, Fernandez suddenly came forward with an idea to use capital funds earmarked for Bus Rapid Transit to ease the agency's financial woes. The board could have avoided a lot of public criticism if Fernandez had made the proposal earlier.
Fernandez originally came to the board a few months ago, seeking a lucrative severance package, Harper said, but after negotiations, he's walking away with less than what he wanted. For example, he will have to repay the $500,000 in loans that the board awarded him so that he could purchase his ex-girlfriend's house (see "The House That AC Transit Bought," 3/5/08). Under the loan terms, Fernandez is supposed to repay the money within one year. But Harper said the board may allow a twelve-month extension. "It's going to have to be repaid by a date certain," he added.
The outgoing general manager assumed his position in 1999 and served for a decade, generally enjoying the support of the board over the years. But his tenure was marked by difficult times. AC Transit has repeatedly slashed service and raised fares in recent years, while requiring loans from other agencies to stay solvent and growing increasingly dependent on taxpayer funds to keep its buses running.
Fernandez was partially responsible for the Van Hool debacle. In the early part of this decade, he and the board decided they wanted a European-style, three-door, low-floor bus because they believed it would work best for Bus Rapid Transit. Fernandez and AC Transit employees then embarked on a series of expensive junkets to Europe, spending more than a $1 million of public funds.
But eventually, the agency was forced to reverse course when it became clear that the Van Hool design was dangerous and accident prone. Ultimately, the AC Transit board asked the Belgian company to make buses that resemble American-made models. And then last week, the board voted 6-1 in favor of a "Buy America" policy that could finally end AC Transit's deal with Van Hool before a single lane of BRT was ever built.
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