TriMet appoints interim general manager
TriMet has appointed its current chief operating officer as its interim general manager.
The regional transit agency's Board of Directors appointed Sam Desue, Jr. to temporarily succeed Doug Kelsey at its Feb. 24 meeting. Desue will become the interim general manager after Kelsey retires when his contract expires on March 6.
"I am honored to serve as TriMet's interim General Manager and I look forward to aiding the agency and the region as we continue to move through this pandemic," said Desue. "Forward momentum and leadership will be critical during this time of transition, and I will bring a community-driven and consensus-building focus."
Desue joined TriMet in March 2019 after more than 27 years of public and private transportation experience. He previously served at three different public transportation agencies in executive level positions.
Kelsey announced his pending retirement in December 2020 and will remain with the agency through Friday, March 5. TriMet has launched an extensive outreach effort for public comment on choosing its next general manager.
The community will be able to provide feedback through an online survey, listening sessions and at Board of Directors meetings and other opportunities.
"TriMet wants to hear from riders and community members as we launch an extensive engagement effort that will help guide the search for our next general manager," the agency said in a Wednesday, Feb. 17, announcement. "The board calls the hiring of the agency's next general manager its most important duty."
The board approved a draft job description for the general manager position at its Jan. 27 meeting. TriMet said this step was necessary to begin coordinating search efforts for possible candidates. Much of the job description reflects the qualifications and duties of a general manager as set by state law.
The draft description also includes knowledge, skills and abilities specific to TriMet and its mission and values. Among them are ensuring a safe and secure operating environment for customers, employees and the public; advocating a vision for the organization while cultivating innovation among staff; and championing diversity, equity and inclusion into the agency's principles and practices.
The draft job description can be found here.
The board plans to approve a final job description in late March. TriMet's engagement efforts will provide feedback for that. Guided by a search committee of the board and with the assistance of a recruiting firm, the full board plans to identify quality candidates and have a new general manager in place at TriMet by spring/summer 2021.
Feedback opportunities include:
• An online survey at trimet.org/gm. The survey gathers feedback for the board on the experience, values and priorities important for TriMet's next general manager. The survey will be shared with riders, employees and the community to reach a wide and diverse audience. The survey will be available in multiple languages.
• Four virtual listening sessions, one held in Spanish, to share thoughts directly with TriMet and board members. Meeting links will be posted at trimet.org/gm by Monday, March 1. The dates and times are: 5-6:30 p.m. Monday, March 8 (English); 5-6:30 p.m. Tuesday, March 9 (Spanish); noon to 1:30 p.m. Wednesday, March 12 (English); and 5-6:30 p.m. Thursday, March 11 (English).
• Public forums at the beginning of the TriMet Board of Directors' monthly meeting will be virtual due to COVID-19 precautions. Meeting links and details for public testimony will be posted the Friday before each meeting at trimet.org/meetings/board. The next meetings are: 9 a.m. Wednesday, Feb. 24; 9 a.m. Wednesday, Mar. 24; and 9 a.m. Wednesday Apr. 28.
Doug Kelsey, who has served as general manager since March 2018, has announced he will retire when his current contract with TriMet expires in March. The agency's board of directors canceled a Dec. 30 meeting to discuss new criteria for Kelsey's successor after receiving letters from elected officials and advocacy organizations within TriMet's service district calling for more public involvement in the selection process.
The selection process is happening at a critical time for the agency that provides bus and train service throughout most of Multnomah, Washington and Clackamas counties. Whoever replaces Kelsey will face an unprecedented number of challenges.
Among other things, although TriMet ridership had been declining slowly in recent years, it plunged 70% earlier this year after the COVID-19 pandemic hit. Ridership is still down by about 60% compared to the same period last year.
The ridership decline cut TriMet fare revenues at the same time the agency's other major funding source — a payroll tax on employers in the region — also fell because of pandemic-related layoffs. Emergency federal and state aid has softened the twin blows, but TriMet is predicting a shortfall of tens of millions of dollars in the fiscal year that begins on July 1, 2022.
At the same time, TriMet suffered another financial hit when voters defeated a $5.2 billion regional transportation plan proposed by Metro in the November general election. The measure would have helped fund several major TriMet projects that have been in the works for years. They included a new MAX line in the Southwest Corridor between Portland and Bridgeport Village, several new bus rapid transit lines outside of Portland and many new electric buses.
Metro President Lynn Peterson has said the elected regional government will not submit another such measure to voters until 2022, at the earliest.
TriMet is now finishing the federally required Final Environmental Impact Statement for the MAX line before ending work on the project. Once the impact statement is completed, the project could qualify for federal funding if Congress approves a large infrastructure funding package to stimulate the economy.
The TriMet board is also facing a membership and leadership change. Director Travis Stovall resigned after being elected Gresham mayor in the November 2020 general election, and Chair Bruce Warner's term has expired. Oregon Gov. Kate Brown has nominated Dr. LaVerne Lewis to replace Stovall and Eun Hyung "Thomas" Kim to succeed Warner. They must be confirmed by the Oregon Senate to serve. The board chooses the chair.
And, TriMet and its largest union still have not agreed to a new contract despite years of increasingly bitter accusations from the leadership of the Amalgamated Transit Union.
The two letters to the TriMet board reveal the next general manager will face high expectations. For example, the elected officials said whoever is chosen must be qualified to lead the agency to accomplish the following goals: effectively connect people to jobs, education and medical care; address racial equity within the TriMet system to ensure that all users, particularly people of color, benefit from the region's transit network; meet regional climate goals; power the region's economic recovery; and provide affordable housing and job options.
"We desperately need fresh, new leadership from TriMet with a clear vision to proactively champion transit as an essential ingredient to addressing our region's growing inequality, carbon emissions and as a job creator to tackle the economic fallout from the coronavirus pandemic," read the letter from the advocacy organizations.
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