Amid all the hoopla of the Detroit mayoral primary election this past Wednesday, there was another important local government position being decided in Detroit with far less media scrutiny. John Hertel, current General Manager of the Suburban Mobility Authority for Regional Transportation (SMART) was selected to be the first CEO of the Southeast Michigan Regional Transit Authority (RTA). As CEO, John Hertel is now responsible for leading the effort to develop an approved regional transit plan and secure a dedicated source of local funding for the Authority. Hertel will also oversee administration and operations of the Authority and report directly to the RTA Board of Directors.
Hertel was among three top candidates for the new position; which also included Al Martin and Larry Salci. Each of the three candidates has experience leading a southeastern Michigan transit agency: Hertel at SMART; Martin at both SMART and the Detroit Department of Transportation (DDOT); and Salci at SMART’s predecessor, the Southeastern Michigan Transportation Authority (SEMTA). For anyone unfamiliar with the history of transit in the region, the three interviews served as excellent primary source accounts of where we have come from, which foreshadowed the Board’s discussion leading to their decision.
In the deliberations that followed the three interviews, it was clear that each candidate held a distinct asset unique among his peers. Martin, having served as the head of both DDOT and SMART, held diverse leadership experience with the transit agencies of our region, which could have proven advantageous in uniting the agencies of the four-county RTA region. Salci brought both national and technical experience to the table, having worked across the nation at transit providers and rail car manufacturers in places such as Denver, Seattle, Portland, Chicago, and most recently St. Louis. Hertel’s primary asset was his extensive political career in southeast Michigan, winning his first election when he was just 25 years old.
The Board narrowed their choices to Salci’s technical expertise and national perspective, and Hertel’s political bravado for a 2014 funding campaign. Washtenaw County representatives Richard Murphy and Liz Gerber, along with Detroit representative Lisa Franklin, favored Salci as the top candidate. On the other hand, the six representatives from Oakland, Macomb, and Wayne counties were overwhelmingly in favor of Hertel.
Macomb County representative, Julie Gatti, was the first to voice Hertel as her choice, citing his scoring being the highest on the Board’s CEO candidate evaluation rubric. Franklin put forth that choosing Salci would maximize the investment into the CEO’s salary, due to his wealth of experience from other metropolitan regions. Murphy echoed Franklin’s sentiments by emphasizing the Board will need to convince voters that the RTA will not be “more of the same”. He also pointed out that when consulting his colleagues in St. Louis, Baton Rouge, and other metros across the country on this decision, their common advice was that a CEO should serve as the strong level head of the transit system, not its campaign champion. Gerber noted that putting all eggs in the November 2014 basket for a funding campaign was a narrow-sighted vision limiting the purview of the RTA. Wayne County representative, Mark Gaffney, recalled his experience serving on the board of the Michigan State Fair when Hertel was the Fair’s general manager, offering that Hertel works best with a strongly engaged board, rather than a hands-off board. Dr. Curtis Ivery, the other representative of Wayne County summed up the argument for Hertel by saying, “Hertel is the man we want to get a ballot measure passed; we need to use that experience.”
In the end, the votes counted in at 8-1 in favor of selecting John Hertel as the first CEO of the RTA. Each of the four pairs of county representatives voted in favor of Hertel; Franklin was the lone dissenting vote. The Chairman of the RTA Board, Paul Hillegonds, appointed by the Governor to represent the State of Michigan, does not have voting power.
Hertel’s ability to campaign and win in southeast Michigan will be a valuable asset for the RTA. He is a former state senator, former chairman of both Macomb and Wayne County boards of commissioners, former CEO of Detroit Regional Mass Transit, and, as was mentioned earlier, former general manager of the State Fair.
Going forward, there are two keys that the RTA will need for it to become successful. One, to use Hillegonds’ words prior to the vote, “If we select Hertel, we need someone who can focus on operational improvements.” Hertel will make a solid spearhead, but he will need a team behind him backing up his campaign with real improvements in transit service across the four-county RTA regional. The second key will be for Hertel and the RTA Board to maintain an open door policy with transit riders (present and future), voters, and the advocates that represent them. A willingness to work with and listen to the people, will not only pass funding millages, but will also ensure that positive change results from that funding and the coordination of all five transit agencies in the RTA region.
The history lessons carried out over the three CEO candidate interviews clearly illustrated our region’s habit for keeping things in the family. However, we should not dwell on the missed opportunity for a breath of fresh air. Instead, let’s use this opportunity to seize the strength of the Board and Hertel’s connections across the RTA region, create a sustainable funding mechanism for the RTA, and bridge the gaps between our neighboring transit systems. This is only the beginning.
Written By: Dan Sommerville, Policy Associate, Michigan Environmental Council (Trans4M core member)