The oversight board for Baton Rouge’s bus system delayed signing a contract with the agency’s new CEO under pressure from Metro Council members who criticized the board’s plan to pay two people an executive salary.
“We understand what some of the concerns are. We don’t want to pay two CEOs,” Capital Area Transit System Board of Commissioners President Khali Cohran said following the Wednesday meeting. “It’s not two CEOs, but that compensation and budgeted line item, we don’t want to duplicate that expense .”
The board entered the meeting planning to vote on a new contract for interim CEO Dwana Williams, who was promoted in April after former CEO Bill Deville was stripped of his title and duties amid a series of scandals. Deville, however, was not fired. Deville’s contract and $190,819 salary, plus $4,920 in annual benefits, have remained in effect since that meeting, despite Deville not having a publicly defined role.
Deville’s contract expires in September 2023.
Metro Councilman Aaron Moak spoke during the public comment period prior to the board entering an hour-long executive session to debate the contract. He urged the board to resolve Deville’s status prior to continuing to negotiate an interim CEO salary for Williams, the former chief operating officer who currently is paid $145,995 annually.
“We still have a CEO that is still at $190,000 a year that I feel, and the public feels, we don’t actually know what that CEO is doing,” Moak told the board. “It just looks bad.”
The board, after exiting the executive session, voted to defer Williams’ contract indefinitely.
It’s not clear exactly how much Williams would be paid if the new contract were approved.
When asked when Deville’s status would be taken up by the board, Cohran said he couldn’t provide specifics.
“Stay tuned,” Cohran said.
CATS has a $36 million budget for 2022, $19 million of which is funded by a 10-year property tax renewed in November by voters in Baton Rouge and Baker. The agency has 344 classified and unclassified employees, with a median salary of $50,148.80, according to the Louisiana Division of Administration.
The agency was thrust into turmoil during the spring when its comptroller’s drug test was leaked to local media.
The board entered its April meeting intending to terminate Deville’s contract, but abruptly changed course out of concern it could face legal action for terminating the contract improperly. Instead, the board stripped him of his title and duties while allowing the contract to remain in effect.
The board has yet to address the matter in the months since.
Prior to Wednesday’s meeting, Moak and several other Metro Council members criticized the board’s plan to approve a new contract for Williams before resolving Deville’s status.
“It’s shocking for me even to think our government would consider wasting $190k for a second CEOs salary when many families are struggling just to get by,” Metro Councilwoman Jennifer Racca wrote Wednesday afternoon in a text in response to a query from The Advocate.
Metro Councilwoman Laurie Adams told The Advocate she was concerned to have this issue play out after voters overwhelmingly threw their support behind the property tax that funds the system.
“I do think it is concerning that for people who were just recently out there campaigning for the CATS tax, assuring the public that the money will be invested and spent wisely, this may be a hard pill to swallow,” Adams said Wednesday afternoon.
The Metro Council has limited oversight of the CATS board, but does supplement the CATS board members. Metro Councilwoman Carolyn Coleman also serves as the council’s representative on the board, although she was out of town during Wednesday’s meeting.
“It is definitely an issue and this needs to be addressed,” Coleman told The Advocate Wednesday afternoon. “We ought to be at a point whereby we can handle business or a settlement (with Deville) until we venture forward.”
Racca and Moak both said members of the CATS board who were not appointed by the current iteration of the Metro Council, which largely took office in January 2021, should be removed from the board.
“The public has to have a positive perception of what CATS can do,” Moak said. “I truly do believe in public transportation, but I do not believe in most of the people on this board to get it to where it needs to be.”
Despite the board’s decision to delay a vote on the Williams contract, Moak said following the meeting, his concerns remain.
“Even with today’s actions, with the previous actions, there’s got to be better accountability and leadership at CATS from the board down,” Moak said.