By J. Douglas Allen-Taylor
Longtime AC Transit General Manager Rick Fernandez abruptly announced his resignation from his position with the two-county bus district last week, with details of his departure, including the effective date, yet to be worked out.
The resignation comes as AC Transit faces some of the stiffest financial and political challenges of its 50-year history.
Fernandez has served as AC Transit GM since 1999, the longest-serving general manager the agency has had.
Officially, Fernandez’ resignation was for personal reasons, with the general manager saying in a statement released by the district that he had “met with the Board over the past few weeks and let them know of my desire to have more free time with my family and enjoy personal interests.”
However, it is difficult to separate Fernandez’ abrupt resignation announcement from the turmoil and difficulties swirling around the bus agency. Earlier this year, district officials declared a fiscal emergency after projecting that AC Transit would have a negative balance of $9.7 million in working capital as of June 30, 2010. To meet the fiscal emergency, the district had planned staff layoffs and a 15 percent reduction in bus service for the first of the year.
But last month, at Fernandez’ initiative, AC Transit announced plans to try to swap money allocated through the nine-county San Francisco Bay Area Metro-politan Transportation Commis-sion in order to halve the proposed staff layoffs and stave off half of the bus service cuts. But the proposal came at a stiff price: at least a one-year delay in construction of AC Transit’s long-planned Bus Rapid Transit line, with a possible scaling down of the proposal or even abandonment of BRT altogether.
In addition, just last week, the AC Transit Board of Directors passed a resolution calling for preference for purchasing of American-built products, a policy that would be the death knell for AC Transit’s recent practice of buying buses exclusively from Belgian bus manufacturer Van Hool. Fernandez had championed that AC Transit-Van Hool relationship, calling it a “partnership.”
The “Buy America” resolution passed on a 6-1 vote, with only Board Vice President Chris Peeples voting against. Two board members—Greg Harper and Jeff Davis—said they were voting on the resolution with reservations, however, and said they would bring up their concerns after the staff returns for board approval of the details of how the “Buy America” policy will work in practice.
“Rick has done an outstanding job for our riders, our staff, and the taxpayers who support our bus system,” AC Transit President Rocky Fernandez said in a prepared statement. (President Fernandez is no relation to the General Manager.)
“Equally important, he has helped AC Transit lead the way in progressively guiding the organization through good and bad economic times,” he said. “Rick has also done a remarkable job of improving and stabilizing our finances. He has revolutionized relationships with our funding agencies and has devised innovative ways of using various fund sources to financially support the district. He built up a major reserve fund prior to the last recession, then rebuilt those reserves after that recession. The current reserves have enabled the district to deal with this recession in a rational way with ample public process rather than having to slash service last January.”
AC Transit Board Vice President Chris Peeples, in a telephone voicemail to the Daily Planet, said that all board comments on General Manager Fernandez’ resignation were being handled through Board President Rocky Fernandez. But at least one board member was not adhering to that policy.
In comments published in the East Bay Express this week, AC Transit Board member Greg Harper said, “There was pressure building on the board” against Fernandez in recent weeks.