Baton Rouge, LA (FOX44) — Leaders of CATS say they will do whatever it takes to prove their good intentions for running a high-quality bus system.
Councilwoman Ronnie Edwards hosted a town hall meeting on the campus of Southern University Tuesday night. Her stated goal was to provide more context to the criticism facing the transit agency, and to allow the community to hear directly from CATS' management and local public transit advocates.
A day before, Interim CEO Robert Mirabito announced that CATS was investigating the potential theft of $101,860 from fare boxes over the last three years.
"I believe the public deserves accountability as to what has happened to those dollars," Mayor-President Kip Holden said. Accountability would become the theme of the night: stakeholders demanding it, and CATS promising it.
"I have no problem with accountability, for myself or for the organization," Mirabito said. "That's what I'm trying to push here, folks."
Mirabito was joined on the town hall panel by CATS board chairman Isaiah Marshall; state representative Regina Barrow (D-Baton Rouge); David Aguillard of the Baton Rouge Transit Coalition; and Karen Allen, president of senior services at Franciscan Missionaries of Our Lady Health System.
They each gave brief presentations about how CATS fits into the community, the challenges it faced in the past, and what it should do to improve in the future.
"All you saw in the headlines was a lot of finger-pointing: who's saying what about whom, who's to blame what for whom," Aguillard stated, describing news coverage over the last few months. "And there was very little conversation about transit."
The conversation Tuesday night centered on two issues: the hiring of a project management firm, and Monday's revelation that as much as $100,000 may have gone missing from fare boxes. Marshall admitted to worrying about that becoming an even bigger problem.
"What else may be out there?" he asked. "If there's such an internal problem that's been going on for so long, who all have their hands on it, outside of just what we know right now?"
The project manager will oversee all the improvements that were promised during last year's vote for a dedicated funding tax, including new buses and a larger, faster, redesigned route system. The hiring process was delayed last week. Some called the process too confusing, while others criticized the makeup of the search committee. Mirabito reiterated his claim that the process will start again in a few days' time.
"We understand that it takes time to order buses," Aguillard stated. "But CATS needs the technical expertise in its management capacity, and it needs it yesterday."
Mirabito said meetings such as this were a positive step towards restoring the public's faith in CATS. But in his view, providing change will be more important.
"Instead of just talking about it, we have to show the public that we can deliver on our promise," he said.
Five members of the Metro Council, including Edwards, attended the meeting. Buddy Amoroso placed two items on Wednesday's agenda for introduction: one to increase the requirements for joining the CATS board, and one to remove all its current members. He said he and his colleagues are committed to CATS' future success.
"(People in Baton Rouge and Baker) didn't vote for a tax increase, they didn't vote for this or that, they voted for a world-class bus system," he stated.
Marshall declined to speak for other CATS board members, but said he will not resign his position. He admitted that he has made mistakes, but said every human does. He does not believe he committed any crimes or violated the public trust, and said serving on the board is an honor he does not take lightly.
When asked what he wished to have done differently, Marshall said he rushed the process to name a project manager.
"If we'd have met as an evaluation committee prior to going to [the management committee], that's one step that should have been taken that I take the hit on," he stated.
"While I'm taking the hit for finding these problems, I call the agency to full disclosure. The citizens of Baton Rouge deserve to know the challenges at CATS, and that CATS' current leaders are addressing them."
Marshall also disagreed with a claim made Monday by Together Baton Rouge that CATS would not be able to meet its deadlines for the proposed improvements.
"Some of the things we've seen of late present some challenges," he noted. "But we have not given up on still shooting to meet the first quarter of 2014 to turn the system around."