Agency Fires Driver Over New Buses 

But driver has last laugh, as court orders AC Transit to reinstate him to position.

Ben Harbor found out what happens when you cross a staunch supporter of AC Transit's expensive Belgian buses. The longtime bus driver got in a shouting match a few years ago with Jaimie Levin, the agency's director of marketing and chief cheerleader for the controversial Van Hool buses. After the argument, an angry Levin told Harbor he would regret what happened. Sure enough, a few months later, the public agency fired Harbor. But today, the bus driver is enjoying the last laugh.

The run-in began in early 2004. Harbor and other bus drivers had been complaining that the Van Hools' distinctive three-door design make them tough to maneuver because they require a wide turning radius. At the time, Harbor was driving the old No. 43 line from Oakland to Berkeley. Harbor said that one stop in particular, at Solano and Peralta avenues in North Berkeley, was so tight that it was unsafe to pull a Van Hool completely to the curb.

On the evening of January 12, 2004, the agency's marketing director was riding on Harbor's bus when he wanted to get off at Solano and Peralta. According to legal documents, Levin became angry when Harbor stopped the bus in the street and didn't pull to the curb. The two men got in a heated exchange, and Harbor closed the doors and drove off, before finally letting Levin off the bus a few blocks later.

In a legal document written by AC Transit General Counsel Kenneth Scheidig, Harbor said Levin called him an "asshole driver." The bus driver then allegedly said, "Go to hell." According to Scheidig, Levin then threatened to have Harbor "disciplined." "He got mad at me and told me I needed to find another job," Harbor said in an interview. AC Transit officials fired Harbor in September of that year, and later pointed to the incident as one of the main reasons for the decision.

To prove his point about the buses' turning radius, Harbor later set up a still camera and videotaped driver after driver stopping their Van Hools in the street, and allowing passengers to board and exit without attempting to pull into the small loading zone at Solano and Peralta. The tape also showed that some drivers would pull their buses partially to the curb, leaving the vehicle's rear end in the intersection. Harbor, who has been driving for AC Transit for nineteen years, showed the video to Full Disclosure last month. The Van Hool buses have stirred anger for years among riders and drivers, who claim they're unsafe for the elderly and people with mobility problems. (see "The Buses from Hell," 1/23/08).

Neither Scheidig nor Levin returned phone calls seeking comment for this story, but in an arbitration proceeding concerning Harbor's termination, Scheidig said Levin denied calling the bus driver an "asshole." However, the agency's lawyer said that even if he had, Harbor still had no right under AC Transit rules to tell a passenger to "go to hell." "There is nothing in DX 6 that allows an operator to give as good as he/she gets," Scheidig wrote in a legal document for the arbitration hearing.

But last May, the arbitrator ruled against AC Transit, and ordered the agency to reinstate Harbor, who had been out of work for two and a half years. Harbor said last week that he expects AC Transit to pay him all of his back pay this week. The bus driver also filed a federal lawsuit against the agency, but he said he expects the case will settle soon.

No breaks and dirty toilets

Although Harbor is finally back driving buses, he and other drivers are involved in another heated dispute with the agency. This one is between the drivers' union and AC Transit management, which have been locked in a bitter contract battle for months. Typically, it's fights over wages that get unions the most agitated, but not in this case.

According to union members, the thorniest bargaining problem is that the drivers' don't get thirty-minute meal breaks and ten-minute bathroom breaks during their eight-hour shifts as required by state law. "It's the No. 1 issue," said David Lyons, a longtime bus driver and union official.

The drivers say they only get five- to eight-minute breaks at the end of a bus route, which is often not enough time to go to the bathroom and grab a cup of coffee — let alone eat a meal. "I have to eat while I'm driving," said Jaynnie Bundy, who said she's been with AC Transit for eight years. "And if you have to go to the bathroom and there's a line, there's not enough time for that either."

Drivers' are also angry about the deplorable bathroom conditions on their routes. Several bus drivers last month shared photos with Full Disclosure of nasty-looking toilets they're forced to use. AC Transit does not provide bathrooms for most drivers, though it does have portable toilets in some locations. Most of the time, bus drivers must use the customer bathrooms inside BART stations or fast-food restaurants.

In December, the drivers' union authorized a strike. Lyons said the drivers prefer to settle the meal and breaks issue in arbitration, but so far management has refused. Agency spokesman Clarence Johnson declined to comment for this story. Lyons said the union realizes that thirty-minute meal breaks would be too costly for a cash-strapped agency that has repeatedly slashed service in recent years and is contemplating another fare hike. He said he believes they can reach a compromise.

Gun buybacks and healthcare

Remember state Senator Don Perata's gun buyback boondoggle? The one that attracted gun dealers from throughout the West, who showed up with trunk loads of worthless guns and pocketed $250 in cash or a city-backed voucher for many of them? The one that ended up with far more guns than Perata had raised money to buy, possibly leaving the city on the hook for a $170,000 tab?

Well, Perata later told the San Francisco Chronicle that he would raise more cash to pay for all the extra guns he hadn't bargained for. And if state records are any indication, the senator is on his way to doing just that — thanks in large part to the major drug companies that tried to defeat Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger's universal healthcare bill. It just so happens that these very same pharmaceutical giants owe a debt of gratitude to Perata for effectively killing the governor's bill, which Schwarzenegger co-sponsored with Assembly Speaker Fabian Núñez.

According to documents on file with the state Fair Political Practices Commission, Perata asked the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America to donate $40,000 to a nonprofit he established to finance the gun buyback and other violence prevention programs. The senator's nonprofit is called the Third Wednesday Peacekeepers Fund. PhRMA, which agreed to make the donation, is the lobbying and political arm of the pharmaceutical industry.

According to state lobbying records, PhRMA spent $135,000 in the last quarter of 2007 trying to stop the healthcare bill. Perata effectively killed the legislation earlier this year in the state Senate, even though he had originally co-sponsored it. Perata later complained that the bill would cost too much. Neither the senator's spokeswoman nor PhRMA officials returned phone calls seeking comment as to whether the donation was made in response to Perata's actions.

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