by Lauren Daley
A divided Port Authority board today fired CEO Steve Bland, and appointed an interim director while it conducts a national search for a replacement. And while controversial board member Joseph Brimmeier was not installed in Bland's place, a shake-up of the board's leadership has left allies of County Executive Rich Fitzgerald holding the reins.
Bland, who took the post in June 2006, was fired on a 5-3 vote. Board members Jeff Letwin, Connie Parker, Brimmeier, Tom Donatelli and John Tague voted in favor of the move. Amanda Green Hawkins, Mavis Rainey and Eddie Edwards voted against it. Former board chair Jack Brooks didn't vote: Brooks said he didn't have to as board chairman, as he proposed the measure to terminate Bland without cause. That move allowed Bland to collect severance pay.
Prior to voting, Green Hawkins said Bland should have an opportunity to "confront his accusers" in a hearing.
"What I have witnessed has been a concerted and methodical effort to get rid of Steve," she said. "Thus Steve has become collateral damage or collaterally damaged in all of this -- treated as something readily discarded and not without the dignity and respect that we all want."
Green Hawkins, a county councilor who was appointed to the board in 2011 -- before Fitzgerald was elected -- says Bland made hard choices in tough economic times to keep public transit running.
"No chief executive, or for that matter, no man is perfect," she said. "But I see nothing that demonstrates Steve's imperfections warrant termination without a hearing."
Rumors have been swirling for the last week that the firing was engineered by Fitzgerald, who has long criticized Bland. Fitzgerald's original pick to replace Bland, at least in the interim, was rumored to be Brimmeier, who formerly headed the Pennsylvania Turnpike. But sources say Fitzgerald backed off the appointment after a firestorm of criticism over Brimmeier's past.
The board today instead appointed Ellen McLean, the authority's CFO, as interim CEO, while it conducts a national search. McLean is a former member of Mayor Tom Murphy's administration.
Bland, who did not attend the meeting, could not be reached for comment. Amie Downs, a spokeswoman for Fitzgerald, declined comment.
The board also carried out an annual restructuring today, and its leadership is heavy with Fitzgerald allies. Letwin, a board member since 2005 and solicitor for other county authorities, is now chair, having replaced Brooks, who'd previously backed Bland. The vice chair is Donatelli, who Fitzgerald appointed this month and a county public works director who still does business with the county. Tague, who was appointed by Fitzgerald and is an advocate for the disability community, is secretary; Parker, also a Fitzgerald appointee, is treasurer.
Letwin says the primary reason the board terminated Bland was because he was unable to effectively lobby for a solution to a statewide transportation funding crisis. He said that the board expected Bland would resign, but said he didn't know "why he changed his mind."
"I don't think any of us have criticisms for Steve in his role as operating executive," Letwin said. But "we have not had much success in getting a dedicated funding source."
Brooks, a longtime member and supporter of Bland, said that "Fitzgerald got what he wanted."
"The problem with Mr. Bland is he's an administrator and not a politician," Brooks said. "That doesn't work in this town, apparently."