"This is arguably the most critical decision we'll make as a board, regardless of how long we're here, and I couldn't be more happy with Linda Watson, the candidate we've chosen." So said Austin Mayor Pro Tem Mike Martinez, chair of the Capital Metro board of directors, after the board voted 7-0 to hire the current CEO of Orlando's LYNX transit system to fill the same position here. "Ms. Watson's experience, the tenure she's had in the transportation industry, the relative current experience at LYNX in Orlando really did set her far above the other candidates in the end." Watson's only remaining competition at the final stage of the hiring process was Deborah Wathen Finn, a self-employed transportation industry consultant in New York.
Watson has been CEO in Orlando, Fla., since 2004 but is no stranger to Texas. Before Florida, she ran Corpus Christi's transit service between 1996 and 2004 and held various positions with the Fort Worth service from 1982 to 1996. According to LYNX, she currently earns $165,000 annually, plus a $7,800 car allowance.
Martinez said she'll be offered a salary "comparable to transit agency CEOs [of agencies] like Cap Metro." Previous Cap Metro CEO Fred Gilliam earned about $300,000, including deferred compensation; interim CEO Doug Allen made $227,667 when he took over in October. Watson is expected to start her new job in mid-August.
"I'm so excited," Watson told the Chronicle from Orlando, moments after the board vote. "I've spent a lot of time in Austin over the years because I lived in Texas most of my life. It's a fabulous community. And then during the interview process, spending time there and getting to know the board members, I see their commitment to building a world-class transit system, and that excites me," Watson said of her decision to pursue the job, which came open when the embattled Gilliam retired last September.
Board member John Langmore said a consensus on Watson had been reached at the board's closed-door Monday meeting, but the board sent him on a quick junket to Orlando on June 15, just two days before the vote Wednesday. "I went to Orlando for a day and met three of her current board members, three of her staff, and the head of the union, and there was nothing but universal praise," Langmore said from the dais. Afterward, he told reporters: "I could not extract a single negative comment about Linda or her performance from any of them. They said she and her team really turned around LYNX. It had really similar circumstances [to Cap Metro]: a new board imposed by statute and a troubled past."
"She came into LYNX at a time when its reputation was not so great and was able to manage it in a way to re-establish the public's confidence in the agency," Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer, a LYNX board member, told the Orlando Sentinel. "She managed it in difficult economic times and really righted the ship at LYNX. It's a well-thought-of and well-run organization now." Asked if there was anything from LYNX that he'd like Watson to bring to Austin, Martinez said: "Other than community confidence? No. That's huge."
Not everyone in the community has that confidence. Disability rights activist Diane Bomar-Aleman, chair of Cap Metro's Access Advisory Committee, and the Metro Mobility Working Group (a court-created body resulting from a lawsuit settlement with Cap Metro) openly lobbied against Watson for what Bomar-Aleman describes as LYNX's failure to comply with the Americans With Disabilities Act. "I think this is a huge mistake," Bomar-Aleman said after the vote. "It shows they don't want change. Linda Watson is Fred Gilliam in a skirt. Her agency is not comparable to Austin, she's not qualified, and she doesn't use mass transit herself. It's business as usual." (Watson admitted to not being a regular LYNX rider at a community forum last month but asserted LYNX is fully ADA-compliant.)
"It's not just about the disability community," added Bomar-Aleman, who is visually impaired and lobbies heavily for improvements to paratransit services. "I feel she got in because of the business community and the Downtown Austin Alliance." (The DAA was a driving force in bringing commuter rail to Austin, which Bomar-Aleman and some others say takes resources from those who are transit-dependent and gives them to those who already have other transportation choices.) Asked what it would take to win her over, Bomar-Aleman said, "She needs to listen to what the Access Advisory Committee and the MMWG are saying about the illegal ADA violations that are going on and have a full investigation by the [Federal Transit Administration] and a full compliance review."
That opinion is not unanimous within the disability community – Jennifer McPhail of the Austin chapter of ADAPT, which lobbies for improved access to regular fixed-route service for those with mobility impairments, said, "I'm just looking forward to having a clean slate" with a new leader.
The drivers and mechanics union, which has had a rocky relationship with Cap Metro, sounded a similar note. "We figured [Watson] would work well with the union," said bus driver and union member Michael Wood. "She's a people person. We need a person that's really down-to-earth."
Martinez said Watson's more recent public-sector experience gave her an edge. Wathen Finn's most recent public-sector job had been with the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority in Buffalo in 2001. "I can only speak for myself," Martinez said, but "I couldn't call Buffalo and talk to folks in Buffalo who had recent relative experience with her. This was decades-old experience. That factored in for me, that I couldn't talk to somebody who had just worked with her within the past decade."
Martinez also complimented Allen on his brief tenure at the top, adding, "I personally will make another request that he consider staying here in Austin and helping us continue to move this agency forward." Allen, a candidate for the CEO job, was not at the board meeting but has thus far only said he intends to help with the transition to a new leader.
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