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Two D.C. Council members concerned by Metro hiring practices

Number of qualified job applicants down

The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority's expenditure of $88 million in overtime pay largely because of its inability to find qualified job applicants and a lack of D.C. residents in its workforce is troublesome to two members of the D.C. Council, who said Metro has to do more to correct those and other problems.

Council member Mary Cheh, Ward 3 Democrat and chairwoman of the Committee on the Environment, Public Works and Transportation, said Metro must do more to hire District residents, and that she also was "pretty astounded" to learn how few female employees are on Metro's payroll — around 27 percent.

"If Metro is not well run and efficient, it may discourage people from using transit," she warned.

Council member Jim Graham, Ward 1 Democrat who served on the Metro Board of Directors for 12 years until January 2011, said he was "concerned" only 14 percent of Metro's jobs went to residents of the District while "a very high percentage" went to those who live in Maryland.

"There is an incredible need for jobs in D.C." said Mr. Graham, who recalled that he tried to encourage more hiring of Washington residents during his time on the board. "Metro could be doing more."

The comments were in response to a series of articles in The Washington Times that revealed, among other things, Metro's lack of racial diversity; its failure to fill hundreds of jobs resulting in huge overtime expenditures; questionable hiring practices; problems with its 600-member police force; and a whistleblower policy that encourages secrecy and experts say is illegal.

Initially, D.C. Council member Muriel Bowser, Ward 4 Democrat, who represents the District on the Metro Board of Directors, said she was "appalled" at some of the series' findings, including the "lack of diversity and D.C. residents." But later, according to her spokesman, Rob Hawkins, she decided to "associate" herself with a letter critical of The Times sent by Richard Sarles, Metro's general managerand chief executive officer.

Metro is a quasipublic bus and rail transportation system that receives funding from the federal government, Maryland, Virginia and local jurisdictions. With a $2.5 billion operating and capital budget for fiscal 2012, Metrorail serves 86 stations while Metrobus runs 1,500 buses.

Ms. Cheh called the $88 million overtime figure "stunning," saying she was "speechless" when she read Metro was paying that much because it was having difficulty hiring people.

"These are high quality jobs. ... It does make you wonder about their personnel practices," she said.

Mr. Graham said there has to be "greater scrutiny of why the jobs are not filled," adding that in 2010 he and other Metro board members voted against a staff proposal to spend nearly $1 million for a consultant to help the agency hire bus drivers.

"I think Metro ought to be able to hire qualified bus drivers without hiring a consultant," he said. "These are good jobs with good benefits."

The Times series said overtime paid to some station managers exceeded their base salaries, and maintenance workers made as much as $100,000 in overtime alone. It said with nearly 1 in 10 positions unfilled, the chance of successfully filling 1,000 new positions for Metro's new Silver Line is virtually nil.

The Metro Board of Directors determines agency policy and provides oversight for its funding, operation and expansion, but its members declined over the past two weeks to discuss the series' findings, instead referring inquiries to Mr. Sarles or to Metro's public affairs office.

One alternate board member, William Euille, mayor of Alexandria, said Mr. Sarles's office had sent emails to board members telling them a reporter was trying to contact them about the series and that his office would be responding.

In his letter, Mr. Sarles said The Times employed outdated information, misquoted officials and drew inaccurate conclusions about Metro's operation, but declined through a spokesman, Dan Stessel, to provide specifics to back up his allegations.

Metro took nearly a year to respond to a public-documents request for salary and overtime figures, and declined to provide updated data when asked. For affirmative action statistics, the most recent available information obtained from sources inside the agency was used for the series.

Not everyone shared Mr. Sarles' view of the series, including Frederick R. Hill, spokesman for the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, who said the articles contributed to the panel's ongoing oversight of Metro as it investigates the agency's management, safety and value for its riders.

Mr. Hill said the panel, headed by Rep. Darrell E. Issa, California Republican, has been looking into Metro's problems for some time.

Former Rep. Tom Davis, Virginia Republican and a strong Metro advocate in Congress, said the agency has been hampered by work rules and union contracts. He said while top Metro administrators are "good," the board has done little to change "the union culture that has driven up fares.

"The Metro board refuses to take a hard line and has been swayed by political considerations," he said. "To some people on the board, Metro is a jobs corps, not a transportation system."

The Metro board is composed of eight voting and eight alternate directors. In addition to Ms. Bowser, the voting members include James Dyke, Michael Barnes, Alvin J. Nichols, Mortimer L. Downey, Marcel Acosta and Chairwoman Catherine Hudgins, all of whom declined to discuss the series.

On Thursday eighth member Tom Downs said he was "disappointed" the series listed statistics from 2004, 2005 and 2006 "without any current statistics."

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