As more information surfaced about why the top pick for Metro’s general manager position rejected the job offer, a member of the hiring committee said the runner-up might make his decision as soon as Wednesday.
Neal Cohen, a 55-year-old former airline and aerospace industry executive, withdrew from consideration because the “job was bigger than he thought it would be,” according to Council member Jack Evans (D-Ward 2), one of four Metro board members on the special committee leading the hiring process.
Evans said Cohen was uncomfortable with the intense public scrutiny that comes with running the Washington region’s sprawling rail and bus operations. Evans, appointed to Metro’s governing body by the D.C. Council, made his remarks Tuesday at a monthly Council breakfast. He declined to elaborate when questioned by reporters after the event.
“I really can’t talk anymore about it. We just have to go forward and hopefully we can get ourselves a general manager,” Evans said.
During the breakfast, Evans said the runner-up is expected to decide whether to accept the job on Wednesday. In multiple news reports, the name of Paul J. Wiedefeld, the former executive of BWI Airport, has surfaced as the other finalist.
Evans’ comments about Cohen helped clarify why contract negotiations broke down just as it appeared Metro was close to ending the search for its next leader more than a year after Richard Sarles announced his intention to retire, effective Jan. 16, 2015.
A career private-sector financial expert, Cohen was not prepared to face the inescapable public glare that would come with managing a troubled transit system and unhappy customer base, according to a source with knowledge of the hiring process. His reluctance to expose himself to possible public criticism and accountability was the deal breaker, said the source, who asked not to be identified because personnel matters are confidential under Metro policy.
Cohen’s name was leaked to the news media before contract talks began, but that wasn’t a deal breaker, the source said.
As for concerns that Cohen feared being handcuffed by the consultants Metro intends to hire to guide the transit authority in its restructuring, the source said the Metro board was willing to give Cohen full discretion toward any recommendations by consulting firms.
Also, the board was not going to force Cohen to drop his positions on private-sector boards where he receives compensation, the source said. Some of his business relationships simply did not overlap with any responsibilities he would assume as Metro’s top official; others could have been handled through public disclosures, the source said.
‘Vacuum at the top’ remains
The Cohen news disappointed the officials who have been pressing Metro to finally hire a chief executive.
“We need to see WMATA pick a leader, and regardless of anything else going on at WMATA, the vacuum at the top is going to be a problem in terms of implementing the safety measures that we believe need to happen there,” said U.S. Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx in an interview with WAMU 88.5.
Foxx recently ordered the Federal Transit Administration to directly supervise safety oversight of Metro’s day-to-day operations, and he wrote an opinion piece in The Washington Post emphasizing Metro’s safety problems. However, he declined to pick sides in the ongoing debate over whether the second-busiest transit system in the country needs an operations expert or financial wizard.
“I don’t presume to make those decisions for WMATA,” Foxx said.
“This WMATA board needs to coalesce around a leader and hopefully that person will have the financial capability to manage WMATA better than it has been managed in the past, but also hopefully someone that can help with the operational issues that WMATA faces and that we are so concerned about,” he said.
“They’ve got both sets of problems and ideally someone who comes in would have the facility to deal with both, but they’ve got to pick a leader.”
On Monday, Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) released a statement lambasting the Metro board.
“The leaks and petty political sniping that have come to define the work of this board are harming the Metro system and the economy of the region it serves,” the governor’s statement said. “The time has long past for the Board of Directors to bring this process to a close, or for the governments that comprise the system to find board members who will.”