Union leaders expressed concerns about an opaque selection process as New Orleans Regional Transit Authority board members met privately on Friday to interview candidates for the agency’s new chief executive officer.
Two months after Alex Wiggins’ abrupt departure, the board was interviewing two internal and two external candidates drawn from dozens of applications. Board members could sign off on a permanent leader as soon as Tuesday.
- Lona Edwards Hankins, interim CEO and former head of RTA infrastructure, who could benefit from a change in minimum job qualifications
- Mark Major, RTA’s Deputy Chief Executive Officer for Finance and Administration
- Herold Humphrey, the deputy chief of bus operations for the Atlanta public transit agency
- Robbie Makinen, the former chief executive officer of the Kansas City Area Transportation Authority.
The executive search comes at a sensitive time for the agency as it seeks to develop its first bus rapid transit system and grapples with growing unrest from unions over its bus and tram operators and its mechanical.
Union application process
As the board prepared to interview candidates, two union representatives were present in a glass-walled conference room at the Greater New Orleans Inc. headquarters.
Kory Dupree, chair of Amalgamated Transit Union’s Local 1560, told the board that applicants should address widespread concerns among drivers about lack of communication from management, the quality of the buses and their safety. Following his comment, the board entered into executive session and asked the public to leave.
Outside the building, Dupree and Darius Hollins, president of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 1700, which includes mechanics scheduled to begin contract negotiations with the RTA within weeks, said they received little notice about the finalists. Hollins said he didn’t learn the names of the outside candidates until Thursday.
“I had to sift and look around to find out who the other candidates were. We should have been the first to know,” Dupree said. “Everything is jaw-dropping.”
Hollins said he was concerned the board had already decided on his selection.
The RTA declined to answer a number of questions about executive search. But in prepared statements, board chairman Mark Raymond and Dylan Wade, general counsel of TMG Consulting, the firm that conducted the research, defended the process.
“The RTA Board of Directors has full confidence in national recruitment for the Chief Executive Officer position at New Orleans RTA. The board looks forward to selecting and hiring an executive to continue the agency’s progress in building a world-class transportation system that is equitable and prioritizes the needs of our passengers,” said Raymond.
Wade said ads placed in six publications on Jan. 16 yielded 77 applications. After background checks and searches were conducted, the applications were evaluated by a selection committee consisting of Anthony Mumphrey III of TMG Consulting, Courtney Jackson of RIDE New Orleans and Jason Sappington of the New Orleans Regional Planning Commission, Wade said. Hankins, Major, Humphrey and Makinen were the highest scorers.
Before Wiggins resigned in December after three years on the job, there were few public signs that he was leaving.
The board appointed Hankins on an interim basis. As head of RTA infrastructure since December 2019, he has overseen projects such as the yet-to-be-open Canal Street Ferry Terminal and the reconstruction of the Rampart Street trolley line after the nearby Hard Rock Hotel collapsed.
In a letter to the selection committee, Hankins described RTA as a “diamond in the rough,” adding that “with the right leadership and vision this agency can be an agent of change for New Orleans.” Hankins also said she served as capital projects director for the Louisiana Recovery School District from 2007 to 2018, helping rebuild New Orleans public schools after Hurricane Katrina.
A change to the RTA’s solicitation for CEO candidates could benefit Hankins. During the 2019 search that led to Wiggins’ selection, one of the minimum qualifications was five years of senior leadership experience at a public transport agency. This year’s solicitation required three years, making Hankins narrowly eligible.
The RTA did not respond to questions as to why the qualification was changed or by whom.
Major is a decades-long RTA veteran who has highlighted, in his cover letter and resume, his roles in negotiating the agency’s employment agreement with operators, creating the annual budget, and managing the transition from external management to the internal one in 2020.
From 2006 to 2009, he was the director general of the RTA, until the board ordered a change in the agency’s leadership. He took a short break from the transit agency between July 2018 and June 2019, after the private agency that ran the RTA at the time ousted him in a dispute over a new ferry fleet.
Prior to accepting his job in Atlanta, Humphrey served as vice president of bus operations for Dallas Area Rapid Transit from 2017 to 2021 and an executive for international transportation management company Transdev from 2015 to 2017. In his resume, Humphrey said he currently head of around 2,000 employees and had pushed to improve the efficiency of the buses.
Makinen led bus service in the Kansas City area from 2016 to 2022, when he was forced out due to a dispute between his agency and city officials over whether transit money should be spent on street lighting , according to The Kansas City Star. The newspaper reported that he was “long held in high regard”.
Makinen helped usher in free service for riders such as military veterans and high school students, according to a news report. In a letter to RTA’s board, Makinen said he had secured campaign funding to expand the service in the Kansas City area, leading to “spectacular” results.