How Can Governor Justify
Ousting Lee Sander at MTA
Without Naming Successor?
By Henry J. Stern
May 22, 2009
Today is Lee Sander’s last day as executive director of the MTA. He was fired by Governor Paterson with no successor in sight, and given two weeks’ notice, which is the custom in many low-end jobs. That is a hell of a way to run a railroad.
Sander took office in January 2007, an early appointee of former Governor Spitzer. He had worked on transportation issues in the Spitzer campaign in 2006. That may have been his principal offense, since Paterson, like many new rulers, sought to obliterate all traces of their predecessors. Sander is generally credited in the press and among transit activists and analysts, with being an honest, diligent and innovative chief of the MTA. No one has accused him of any irregularity or impropriety that would justify his dismissal.The direction he received from the governor has been close to zero, and no complaints were ever expressed, privately or publicly, over any action he took or failed to take.
What Paterson meant when he called for a “widespread cleanup and cleanout” of the MTA is difficult to discern. He has not named any other individuals who should be “cleaned out.” Nor has he identified any specific plans or methods to “clean up” the agency.
The governor also said: “The one thing I learned in this process is that the public doesn’t trust anything the MTA says.” There is an element of truth in that remark. We don’t believe the MTA when they announce completion dates for capital projects, or when they threaten doomsday cuts unless fares are increased drastically. But this reputation and those practices long preceded Lee Sander. He has not, so far as we know, said anything in particular that turned out not to be true.
If one asks whether the public trusts anything the governor or the legislature says, one would find a similar, if not greater, degree of skepticism. There is good reason for this attitude. The governor was all for significant budget cuts until the legislature kept the budget essentially intact. Then he reversed himself and signed off on the budget.
He vigorously and publicly opposed a tax increase on incomes over $300,000 (the so-called “millionaires' tax”), until he supported it and signed the bill to put it into effect.. He asked state employees to give up their previously contracted 3% pay increases, while giving substantial raises to his own staff. And, after saying how much he liked Carolline Kennedy as a successor to Hillary Clinton’s vacant senate position, he appointed someone else, trashed Kennedy in the press, and then denied what he had done.
To succeed Sander temporarily, MTA chair Dale Hemmerdinger, another Spitzer appointee, has designated Helena Williams, who has been president of the Long Island Rail Road for less than two years. She is a labor lawyer, who later ran the MTA’s Long Island bus lines. She will multi-task for the nonce, continuing as LIRR president. The Board will take up the matter at its next meeting May 27.
You may remember the scandal that arose in September 2008, when it was discovered that 93% to 97% of career employees of the Long Island Rail Road retiring every year since 2000 retired early and soon began to receive disability payments in addition to their pensions. The retirement board hardly ever turns down a disability application, and since 2000 has paid more than $250 million on these claims. Where was Ms. Williams during her two years as president of the railroad?.
We await an indication of Governor Paterson’s intentions in this matter. He created the vacancy, and has the responsibility to fill it, directly or through his appointees. The majority of the MTA board are gubernatorial appointees, with four (out of 17) recommended by the mayor of the City of New York, three recommended by county executives (Nassau, Suffolk and Westchester), and one vote divided among Dutchess, Orange, Putnam and Rockland Counties. MTA board members are subject to Senate confirmation, and they serve for six-year terms. The Senate is scheduled to adjourn on June 22, which limits the time for the intergalactic search which Albany has suggested. We do not know Ms. Williams, but she would be a convenient choice: a woman in house, not particularly a change agent.
On May 13, Paterson demanded that the entire Commission on Public Integrity resign because they did not promptly fire their executive director. The members are appointed for fixed terms, five years in this case, precisely in order to shield them from arbitrary dismissal by a governor who disagreed with them on the handling of a particular case. After consulting with the state officials who recommended them to the governor, six members refused to resign. All have unblemished records in law and ethics, and one has been recommended by Senator Schumer to be United States Attorney for the Eastern District of New York.
Skipping to another body appointed by a chief executive under a different law, the members of New York City's Panel on Educational Policy appointed by the mayor do not enjoy fixed terms. Neither do most city commissioners. When Mayor Bloomberg differed with some panel members he had appointed on the issue of social promotion, a scheme under which every pupil one is automatically promoted each year whether they know any of the work or not, he replaced them immediately. When challenged by reporters, Bloomberg responded with a rhetorical question of his own. “What do you think that serving at the pleasure of the mayor means?’
The selection of a new CEO is probably the most important personnel decision that will be made by state government this year. Political maneuvering notwithstanding, there was absolutely no reason we know of to throw Lee Sander off the train at this time, when there is no one likely to be appointed soon with similar qualifications.
It was reputed that the governor intended to appoint Marc Shaw, a previous executive director, but that plan ran into a blizzard of opposition from Democrats in the State Senate who believed, possibly accurately, that Shaw had been condescending to them during negotiations on the transit package this spring. The prolonged talks resulted in new taxes to benefit the MTA, reducing the fare increase for the moment from 25 percent to 10 percent.
We have had differences with Sander. We opposed tolling the East and Harlem River bridges while he supported the Ravitch recommendations. We also objected to some unneeded capital projects, but they were undertaken well before he arrived in January 2007. We were suspicious of his good relations with the Transit Workers Union, but he vigorously maintains that he did not yield on substantive issues, but simply treated union leaders with dignity and respect.
Anyone can look at an agency head’s job performance and think of ways it might have been different or better. We are not saying there is no person in the world who could match the job Sander has done. But those people are few and far between, and scarcely likely to come to the attention of Governor Paterson.
To dismiss a major commissioner without a successor, in the absence of fault, is most unusual, and difficult to justify to disinterested observers. If there are any facts of which we are unaware which would explain this apparently rash and impetuous action, it is up to Governor Paterson to tell us what they are, even if they are embarrassing.
It is always possible that there is more to a situation than the public knows. But until such disclosure is made, the mere unspecific statement that the governor wants to “clean up and clean out” the MTA is not a plausible explanation for Sander’s ouster. This is particularly true when the successor comes from within the MTA, as does Ms. Williams. Who is she supposed to clean out? Will the governor speak with her, as he did not do with Mr. Sander?
And what of Dale Hemmerdinger, chairman of the MTA. Will he be left by the governor to twist slowly in the wind? He has also served two and a half years without salary, fault or complaint. Yet his job is suppposed to be merged with Mr. Sander's former position. When?
Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, and sometimes a blunder is just a blunder.
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