Anger, frustration displayed by CATS riders, employees

Wednesday, April 17, 2013 - 6:00am

Riders, taxpayers, and employees took turn sharing their feelings with CATS at its board meeting Tuesday, and none of them were positive.

Some went as far as to say the board and executive staff should resign.

"You need to do something, man," Clarence Johnson said to CEO Brian Marshall. "You need to do something. And if you can't do it, let somebody else get the job and do it! You can go ahead about your business!"

Money was the primary cause of frustration, but for different reasons.

Riders and taxpayers voiced frustrations with what they described as a lack of visible improvement as a result of an $18 million tax approved by voters in Baton Rouge and Baker last year.

"We voted, you got our money, and we ain't getting no results," Johnson said.

He went on to ask when long-promised shelters would be added to many bus stops. Board chairman Isaiah Marshall, no relation to Brian Marshall, told him they would be installed soon, but gave no firm date.

"I believe you as much as this counter right here gonna get up and walk out there out the door and put me on its shoulder going out there," Johnson responded.

Others agreed with Johnson, demanding greater transparency and accountability.

"Y'all got the money. We need to know where that money's going," said Tony Dunmore. "If it's not going toward the system, where's it going, in your pockets?"

Board member Montrell McCaleb defended the intentions of his fellow members.

"I share your concerns. We're not perfect, but we strive very hard," he said.

"This is a volunteer job for the board members, we don't get paid for this. So all of us on the board, we care about every one in this room, who work on maintenance, who ride the buses, as well as the general public.

"So I don't want that perception that we as board members, we're sitting here on our cell phones, eating sandwiches, and going home, and don't care about you, because that's not true. I rode the bus. I know what it's like. And for individuals to sit here and tell me that I don't know what it's like, I take highly offense to that."

Some speakers did criticize the behavior of the board members during the meeting. In particular, they disliked the way Isaiah Marshall spoke to union members who brought protest signs into the meeting room. The union is seeking a new contract with increased pay, but Marshall said there would be no discussion of the contract, cutting off a union representative during her statement.

"We are doing things to make y'all look good, but we need to do things to meet the needs of people," Josie Bellard told them. "Then some of you all on this board, you need to watch how you talk to people!"

"They're making your money for you. You should have some respect, and treat the people the way they should be treated," Dunmore agreed.

Pat Smiley, a CATS employee, said good mechanics have felt forced to leave for other, better paying jobs, and the ones who remain suffer from poor morale.

"The point it's at now is these people are so frustrated, that they're starting to make mistakes," he said.

Smiley added that he recently had to tell his wife they could not take a trip to celebrate their anniversary as a result of low wages paid by CATS.

"I had to sit there and watch tears run down my wife's face because we can't afford to go on vacation," he stated.

Brian Marshall said the emotional testimony was a bargaining tactic by the union.

"I think it's evident," he said after the meeting ended. "Not to say their issues are right, wrong, or otherwise. But there's a process to do things. And I don't know that they followed the process."

On the subject of system improvement, Marshall said, "clearly, clearly the ship is turning. Clearly. I mean, it's irrefutable; the numbers prove it."

He pointed to an influx of new buses reducing wait times as proof that CATS is making positive change. He reported Tuesday that on-time arrivals increased to 74% in March, compared to 63% in March 2012. He blamed people's frustration on a lack of understanding of how the tax worked.

"The tax passed in April of 2012," he stated. "And the assumption is: everything would be done. We didn't receive a penny, we didn't receive a penny before January of 2013.

"We've only had the money in our hands for three months, and yet we made phenomenal change. So I think those people who said that probably misspoke, and I accept them misspeaking, but the facts speak for themselves."  

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