State Rep. Mike Jacobs acts inappropriately during MARTA’s search for new general manager

By Maria Saporta

State Rep. Mike Jacobs (R-DeKalb) has been quick to critique MARTA in just about any way he can.

He has been using his position as chairman of the legislative MARTA Oversight Committee (MARTOC) as a political platform for a host of unrelated agendas such as the creation of a City of Brookhaven.

But now it’s time to turn the table on Jacobs. During the search for a new general manager for MARTA, Jacobs acted in a most inappropriate manner by inserting himself into the process.

With no apparent hesitation, Jacobs told the press who he thought MARTA should pick as its new leader. He even went on to threaten that if MARTA did not choose his pick — Dwight Ferrell, MARTA’s deputy general manager — then there would be consequences in the transit agency’s relations with the state.

Consider these comments that he gave to the Atlanta Journal Constitution in early September.

“It’s my understanding that MARTA has a very good internal candidate,” Jacobs told the AJC, referring to Ferrell. “The decision the MARTA board makes … may well determine in the very near term the direction of its relationship with the General Assembly. An internal candidate who is committed to doing the work that needs to be done to get MARTA’s fiscal ship righted could go a long way to shoring up and bolstering the relationship with the General Assembly.”

Just to make sure he was making his point, Jacobs went on to say:

“This discussion about MARTA’s fiscal situation, from this point forward, will be established by its choice of a general manager,” Jacobs said. “There are legislators who view the MARTA board’s choice of a general manager as a very serious matter. MARTA has a very serious fiscal situation that it needs to address very quickly. But if it doesn’t, the General Assembly may have to step in to require MARTA to do what needs to be done.”

Now consider this.

Jacobs was not part of the search committee process so he had no idea what choices MARTA had in selecting a new general manager. He is not a member of the MARTA board, and he does not know what would be best for the transit agency going forward.

So why would Jacobs insert himself into MARTA’s search process when he had no appropriate role to do so?

The possible answers are disturbing. Did Jacobs and Ferrell have some kind of deal to help the state gain control over MARTA? Would Ferrell have viewed Jacobs as his true boss rather than the MARTA board? In other words, was Jacobs hoping to insert Ferrell as his puppet at MARTA?

Remember, the State of Georgia provides virtually no financial support for MARTA, and as such, it has no right to try to call the shots.

Fortunately, MARTA’s board members did not cave in to Jacobs’ demands.

They knew that Ferrell, who had alienated many people both inside and outside of MARTA, was the wrong person to lead the transit agency during its next chapter.

More importantly, MARTA’s board members saw great leadership potential in at least two external candidates — Keith Parker of San Antonio and Stephen Bland from Pittsburgh — and the committee selected them as the finalists.

On Thursday, Oct. 4, nine MARTA board members voted in favor of Parker. One member was absent, and one member — Wendy Butler — abstained.

Not only did that show strong support for Parker as MARTA’s new general manager. It also raised all sorts of questions about Butler’s role on the MARTA board and her relationship with Jacobs.

Butler served as campaign manager of Jacob’s re-election campaign from August 2010 to November 2010, helping him win that race. (Unfortunately, he is running unopposed this year).

So has Butler been the pipeline of information to Jacobs about MARTA’s internal operations and search process? If so, that brings into question her own loyalties. Is she using her role on MARTA’s board to support Jacobs’ political agenda rather than serving as a responsible board member?

So when Jacobs didn’t get his way on picking Ferrell as a new general manager, he started complaining about the legitimacy of the process, claiming to Attorney General Sam Olens that MARTA violated open meetings rules.

Since then, the attorney general’s office has told MARTA that its vote for Parker stands. So once again, Jacobs’ efforts to undercut the agency from his MARTOC post have failed.

Now MARTA has an opportunity to start fresh. It has just completed a thorough audit of the organization to seek possible productivity improvements and cost savings. It has a new strategic plan to help set its course for the future.

And in Parker, it will have a new general manager, who can try (as so many other general managers have tried before) to build a constructive relationship with the state.

Now the question will be whether the state will act responsibly to work with MARTA to make it as strong as it can be. Or will Jacobs become even more vindictive and work at cross purposes against the interests of his own district and against MARTA?

What a big disappointment Jacobs has been in his role as MARTOC chairman. He had the opportunity to become a real statesman — helping resolve several structural issues in the MARTA Act and improving relations between Georgia’s largest public transit agency and the state.

And by playing politics with his important role as MARTOC’s chair, Jacobs has missed an excellent opportunity to emerge as a respected leader in our region and our state.

Maria Saporta, Editor, is a longtime Atlanta business, civic and urban affairs journalist with a deep knowledge of our city, our region and state.  Since 2008, she has written a weekly column and news stories for the Atlanta Business Chronicle. Prior to that, she spent 27 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, becoming its business columnist in 1991. Maria received her Master’s degree in urban studies from Georgia State and her Bachelor’s degree in journalism from Boston University. Maria was born in Atlanta to European parents and has two young adult children.

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