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Members differ over whether Valley Lift's drivers should be in-house or under contract

Personal, political splits plague RVTD board

The Rogue Valley Transportation District normally grabs about as much public attention as local irrigation and sewer districts.

Regular board and staff meetings for small, taxing districts rarely pull in more than a handful of visitors ' if any ' unless price increases or service cuts are proposed.

But in June the spotlight unexpectedly turned on the RVTD board of directors after the group voted to reject General Manager Sherrin Coleman's contract renewal and attempted to fire her without cause.

That motion was later tabled indefinitely, allowing Coleman to continue working until her contract expires Jan. 1.

The board's actions were made without a word of discussion or explanation, sparking an intense wave of public criticism and media scrutiny.

RVTD employees rallied in support of Coleman and launched a recall effort to remove six of the seven elected officials from their posts. More than a dozen local government officials began publicly criticizing the board's actions.

Allegations of public meeting law violations and hidden agendas continue to swirl ' rumors that board members say aren't true.

Since the June meeting, attendance has spiked to more than 100 people at times, prompting the board to seek out a larger meeting hall to accommodate the growing crowd.

Dozens of audience members have pledged to keep up their vigil at RVTD's meetings in hopes that their questions might be answered and to act as watchdogs for the district.

The people on the bus

The seven RVTD board members have been serving together for more than a year, and bring to the table diverse backgrounds and experiences.

Dissension is bound to happen in such a group, but 20-year RVTD board member Edwin Chapman said that doesn't excuse the board's behavior.

You can't get seven different people from seven different backgrounds to agree, Chapman said. But they should all be willing to listen. This board doesn't.

Private notes are often passed between board members during public meetings, Chapman said. Board members frequently shout and insult guests, staff and each other, he added.

One example took place during a special board meeting on June 4, in which board member and Ashland resident Stan Druben became irritated with Chapman.

While board member Susan McKenzie was discussing budget concerns, Druben broke in with comments about Chapman.

Madame chair, would you ask this gentleman to quit staring at me, Druben asked then Chairwoman Kay Harrison. Or do I sit here at this entire meeting and we'll have a staring contest across the table?

The board granted Druben's request to move his chair so he was not facing Chapman.

Druben, a retired computer analyst and big supporter of public transit, has not returned numerous phone calls seeking comment.

During a meeting in July, board member Mary Wooding shouted to Chapman that she would not resign after Chapman urged board members facing a recall to step down.

Wooding, a retiree living in Ashland, describes herself as no Caspar Milquetoast.

It isn't that there's anything wrong with him, he just drives me insane, Wooding said of Chapman.

Wooding said she brings a love for public transit to the table. Her top priorities include offering bus rides at 15-minute intervals and expanding service to nights and weekends.

Wooding is also a strong supporter of having in-house drivers for Valley Lift rather than existing contracts with outside contractors. Valley Lift is a federally mandated service providing rides to disabled passengers.

According to RVTD Senior Planner Scott Chancey, a recent feasibility study showed that bringing a portion of that service in-house would cost an additional &

36;400,000 annually, nearly doubling the program's &

36;438,000 operating budget.

Despite the study's findings, Wooding would still like to find a way to bring Valley Lift in-house.

I'd still like to know where they got those figures, Wooding said. I don't believe it.

RVTD board members Eva Avery, Kay Harrison and Carol Bennett have all supported the idea.

But critics allege those board members are pushing for the in-house operation because they are backed by a local union, including Bennett, who is a member of a Central Point union.

When Chancey presented the study's findings in May, Bennett called it stupid. She then clarified that the memo Chancey was reading was stupid, and not Chancey himself.

Attempts to contact Bennett ' a Central Point union member ' this week were unsuccessful.

However, board members continue to refute rumors that they are pushing to unionize employees. In addition, the Amalgamated Transit Union, Division 757 sent a letter to the RVTD board on July — denying the allegations, claiming any such actions would be inappropriate.

Avery said it's simply not possible at this time to move services in-house, despite her desire to see it happen.

The feasibility study showed it isn't feasible, she added.

Avery is a retired RVTD employee who said she joined the board to make a difference.

I had a deep commitment to transportation. I felt I could help, she added.

Harrison, a former RVTD employee and current Central Point city councilwoman, did not return phone calls seeking comment this week.

While employed with RVTD, Harrison worked as a dispatcher. At one point Harrison served on the board while employed by the district.

RVTD customer service supervisor Vicki Badtke said Harrison, who now works for U.S. Cellular, was fired in 1997. Policy prohibits RVTD management from commenting on Harrison's reason for leaving.

Poor job performance was one reason, said Badtke, who used to work with Harrison. She did not follow standard operating procedures.

In an earlier interview, Harrison said she feels improving public transit is vital to Southern Oregon.

It's something I care about deeply, she said.

Susan McKenzie, a single mom who moved to the Rogue Valley two years ago, has also come under fire.

After securing a seat on the RVTD board in 1999, McKenzie made an unsuccessful bid for Medford mayor in 2000.

Frequently, McKenzie will deliver comments at board meetings, shout and slam her hands on the table to make a point.

McKenzie's style extends out of the RVTD boardroom as well.

Two years ago during a City Council Ward 4 town hall meeting, McKenzie said f'- you to Medford Councilman Bob Strosser.

Strosser said he did not want to comment on the circumstances surrounding the outburst.

McKenzie announced last week that she will challenge Strosser for his Ward 4 seat during the November election. Strosser said he will seek re-election.

McKenzie readily admits to having a temper, but added that she does her homework and cares deeply about RVTD and public transit.

I'm a little over the top, she joked. A discussion with me can be illuminating.

All joking aside, McKenzie said she takes her job as an RVTD board member very seriously.

The community is just a larger extension of our family, she said. I'm willing to do the work. I find it fascinating.

A bumpy road ahead?

RVTD board members all agree they want to, get back to business and focus on the district, in Wooding's own words.

But obstacles besides the recall effort could threaten that goal.

The Rogue Valley Metropolitan Planning Organization recently pledged annual allotments of &

36;350,000 to RVTD for the next 18 years.

According to MPO Chairman Skip Knight, who also serves on Medford's City Council, that decision was based on Coleman's performance and the stability she brought to the district. He said the board's decision to cut Coleman loose could jeopardize that funding decision.

Knight feels the board's micromanagement will hurt RVTD.

A board doesn't have to see every 'I' dotted and 'T' crossed, he added. Let the staff do its job.

However, Central Point Mayor and MPO Vice Chair Bill Walton doesn't feel the board is micromanaging. Walton said it appears the board isn't giving clear instructions to its staff because board members lack a knowledge of public meeting policy.

These are good people but they've gone down a wrong path, and they don't know how to back up, Walton said.

Martin Loring, the Oregon Department of Transportation's public transit division manager, administers a number of state grants and channels state funds.

He said the board's decision to oust Coleman could indirectly affect the availability of discretionary grants if performance and stability in the district changes because of Coleman's absence.

Indirectly, it could have consequences, he said. If significant change were to occur, I think we would be interested in talking to the board.

Despite rumors to the contrary, board members are adamant that the recent turmoil will not affect bus and program services within the district.

That's just not going to happen, Avery said. We're not going to cut services.

Harrison earlier said she believed rumors regarding service cuts were sparked by people upset over the board's decision to replace Coleman.

Their fears have been used, Harrison said. I just feel they were highly unprofessional.

Six of the seven members of the Rogue Valley Transportation District board face a recall election. Controversy has marked the board's recent tenure. Mail Tribune / Roy Musitelli - Mail Tribune Roy Musitelli