Transportation district leaders struggle to reach any accordSEASIDE - Tension has erupted among the leaders of the Sunset Empire Transportation District.

Two board members have questioned whether the district should retain Executive Director Cindy Howe. But the chairman, on behalf of the majority of seven-member board, has proclaimed continued support for her and asserted that in terms of operations the district is rolling smoothly.

"Any discussion casting doubt on the effectiveness of the board or Cindy Howe is not well founded," wrote David Shannon, chairman of the district's board of commissioners.

"The board has moved forward, performed its duties and made all appropriate decisions required of it," he added. Howe has a contract through the summer of 2004 and "not only has she not breached the contract, but (she) has worked very hard and skillfully to improve the district and make it one of the shining examples of a rural bus system on the West Coast."

The turmoil peaked at a Dec. 31 board meeting. Commissioner Jim Santee said at an upcoming goal-setting session he would like to discuss concerns he had outlined in a Dec. 15 letter, and called for "an open and frank discussion" of the district's direction.

Included in those concerns was an evaluation of Howe. Santee had made critical remarks about her in a summer evaluation.

Howe said she already had been evaluated and would not be dragged "through the mud again," according to the minutes.

Furthermore, Howe said she would take Santee to court and, as tempers rose, Santee said, 'Why don't you just plug it for once and listen?'

"Ms. Howe said, 'I refuse,' and she asked Commissioner Santee to leave the room," according to the minutes. "Ms. Howe said she was an employee of the district, did not deserve this treatment and that it was harassment."

Santee said, 'Let me go for the record, I think you are incompetent.'"

Howe asked him to leave the room, and he said "don't hold me."

Shannon, the chairman, urged everyone to stop.

"Excuse me, we are recording, right?" Howe said. "So I can use this?"

Santee said, "I feel you are a danger, listen to me, I feel you have endangered the passengers of the Sunset Empire Transportation District with the shuttle situation that you ran last year. ... I do not dispute that you have done a beautiful job but you refuse to address the fundamental issues that I have raised."

"I refuse to address anything you raise because I find you to be a disruptive influence and you do not have the district's best interests at heart," Howe said.

"I move that we terminate Ms. Howe's contract immediately," Santee said.

Shannon said the issue was not on the agenda, declared a recess and adjourned the meeting.

Stirrings of dissentThe conflict did not emerge suddenly, Howe said in an interview with The Daily Astorian this week.

"There has been dissension on the board for a long time," she said. "Board members should have different opinions, but be able to come to a consensus.

"I believe we have a board with people who are well-intentioned but have reached a boiling point." She said Santee and Commissioner John Meyer disagree with the other five board members about what the board's role is. "And I happen to be caught in the middle of it."

Santee's concern about the shuttle focused on the Crab and Seafood Festival in April, when district buses transported an estimated 15,000 people to the Clatsop County Fairgrounds. Santee worried about passengers allowed to stand on the bus when all seats were occupied, Howe said.

The turmoil has spilled into a busy time than for the district.

Howe said the acrimony threatens to detract from important activities. Santee and Meyer have said the sheer scope of activity is part of the problem.

Areas of district activity include:

• Transportation services. The basic system known locally as "The Bus" to provide safe, reliable mass transit in Clatsop County;

• Medicaid brokerage. In a program launched approximately two years ago as a first in the state, the district administers the arrangement of rides for Medicaid patients in Clatsop, Tillamook and Columbia counties. With the district working with 20 bus, taxi and other transportation providers in the region as a central dispatcher, the program serves more than 1,000 people who take a total of 3,500 rides a month. It $1 million program designed to be "cost neutral" or reimbursed;

• Capital projects. This work includes a $2 million development of the Fort Clatsop shuttling system for massive crowds anticipated in light of the Lewis and Clark Bicentennial, as well as an up to $1.6 million intermodal transit center in Astoria to coordinate users of different forms of transportation in Astoria.

• Organizational development. A consultant has been hired for approximately $100,000 to examine the district as a whole, from compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act to driver training. Meanwhile, federal funding opportunities require capital project planning for the next six years, and the district also is coordinating with passenger rail service planned between Astoria and Portland.

Changes in toneHowe was a board member when the district began, and was contracted to serve as its administrator in 1997. She was hired as the executive director in 1999.

She said she worked well with Santee when he was chairman two years ago, but is not sure why the tone of their relationship changed. He seems intent on "driving me out," she said.

Meyer appears to be focused on holding the board accountable to the public and has frequently made requests for reports and information, she said.

Last summer, Santee and Meyer submitted different forms for evaluating Howe, she said. She told them if they wished to evaluate her she would choose to have the evaluation conducted in public.

The attorney for the district advised her that because that set of evaluations was never formally voted upon, it was not validated and therefore is not part of her personal file, she said.

Meanwhile, "I have been under tremendous, tremendous stress because of the actions of a couple of board members," she said.

"This has been a constant barrage of attacks, day after day, week after week, month after month - references to how I dress, how I wear my hair, and if I speak to a public official, direction on what I can and cannot say," she said. It includes scrutiny on whether and how she should write reports and whether board permission was sought, she said.

The activity has extended "to the point where I have contemplated looking for another job, but I am committed to the 37 employees of the district," she said.

She has sought psychological counseling and has suffered stress-related health problems, but has tried to not let those challenges interfere with work, she said.

"The impacts are not going to be felt on the base level of our transportation system," Howe said. "We have some of the best people out there who drive the buses - they are professional, care about passengers and have compassion for what they do."

But she acknowledged that the board conflict "does have an impact on morale."

Mixed viewsIn an interview this week, Santee said Howe's vivacious, positive demeanor in public does not reveal what he described as a sometimes disrespectful and "scorched earth, take no prisoners way of doing business."

"Cindy has done a tremendous job for the community," he said. "She's worked her heart out, from a professional standpoint."

But what concerns him "isn't so much that you've accomplished these things, it's how you're doing it."

He encouraged Howe to focus on the Lewis and Clark shuttle system or possibly take a break and seek additional university education while the growing district worked with a different transit professional, he said. Instead, the district hired an organizational development consultant, which is a more costly approach, he said.

"The board has got to get its act together," he said.

He alleged she has screamed at him, made faces, and does not take input from outside sources and members of the board.

"Nobody tells Cindy what to do," he said. "I'm fed up with her nasty looks and attitude."

Santee said he plans not to seek re-election when his term expires in June.

Meyer, who plans to step down then to seek a position on the Clatsop Community College board, also expressed concern about district priorities and Howe's role in them.

If the performance of Howe is going to cause long range issues for the district and her removal is the only way to stop them, "then I think there needs to be some public discussion," he said.

Meyer alleged that she often takes action and then reports to the board rather than taking initial direction from the commissioners. "The district has changed and her position has changed; she's not the chairman of the board."

"Too much time has been spent on the Lewis and Clark (shuttle) matter, to the detriment of the day-to-day operation," Meyer added.

A vocal opponent of the intermodal project, he said he frequently requests information from Howe as a matter of public accountability. "It's my obligation as a board member," he said.

"Until the end of my five months I will continue to be a watchdog," he said.

"The frustration level wears on you," Howe said. "When is the next time it will come about, and how can I protect myself and my staff?"

One person can "bring down an organization if they try hard enough," she said. "I'm trying hard to not let that happen."

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