The salary and other contract terms for the Regional Transportation District’s incoming CEO and general manager have been hammered out by a negotiating committee, setting the stage for potential approval by the agency’s board next week.
But the elected board members have opted to keep the public in the dark about the terms of Debra Johnson’s contract until shortly before the expected vote Tuesday night. The contract itself won’t be made public until after the vote.
The decision, revealed during recent meetings of the GM Executive Search Committee, hews to the board’s close-to-the-vest approach to handling past general managers’ contracts. But it deviates from RTD’s common practice of including some other not-yet-approved legal documents in the public packets for meeting agendas several days in advance.
Johnson’s contract is coming up at a sensitive time, as RTD is poised to welcome a top official — one likely to make upwards of $300,000 a year, based on past CEOs’ salaries — at the same time it’s making plans to lay off as many as 550 union and salaried employees. The agency also is considering furloughs and pay cuts for management to help balance a pandemic-induced budget shortfall.
Most of the GM committee’s members, including board chair Angie Rivera-Malpiede, said they viewed Johnson’s contract differently because the terms are subject to change until the vote, though those were all but set as of Tuesday.
On Thursday afternoon, the committee plans to advance the contract for higher consideration.
Director Natalie Menten, long an advocate on the board for reducing the salaries paid to RTD’s top officials, is among few members who have taken exception.
“It’s bad public policy to withhold major contract terms from the public until after we vote,” Menten said Wednesday. “Purposely concealing information from citizens is bluntly saying they aren’t welcome or worthy of being included in the discussion. I disagree with that dismissive attitude towards the public.”
Also questioning the decision is Jeff Roberts, executive director of the Freedom of Information Coalition. He argued that the contract would become a public document before the vote because materials given to elected officials for consideration in a public meeting lose their confidentiality protection under the Colorado Open Records Act.
“There’s definitely a public interest in how the new general manager is to be compensated,” Roberts said. “At some point in time, that has to be part of the public discussion.”
The board selected Johnson, the deputy CEO of Long Beach Transit in California, as RTD’s next leader on Aug. 25, with Menten casting the sole “no” vote.
Since then, the GM committee’s remote meetings have included lengthy executive sessions, out of public earshot, to discuss strategy and get legal advice. But the public portions of recent meetings have included debate about how to handle the contract’s release, with Menten pushing to make it available prior to the final vote.
She told colleagues Tuesday that she considered it “really sad” that most wouldn’t agree to that.
“Thank you for your comment,” committee chair Peggy Catlin responded, adding: “I think you are correct that the majority of this committee felt that, until there’s a formal action taken by the board, that it is still under negotiation.”
During Friday’s meeting, Director Vince Buzek, defended that view and said it was likely board members would discuss some of the contract’s terms during next week’s meeting, before the vote.
“That’s when those details may come out, and I don’t see that as a deviation from our process,” he said. “To couch this in terms of ‘we’re hiding information and withholding information’ — I think that’s disingenuous, and it just taints the entire process. It’s not what we’re doing. We’re in a negotiation phase, and our goal as elected officials is to protect the interests of the Regional Transportation District.”
Once a contract is signed, Johnson is expected to start at RTD in early November.
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