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Muni chief steps down amid growing pressure over harassment allegations

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John Haley, director of transit for the SF Municipal Transit Agency, was the subject of a harassment complaints and a lawsuit. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

John Haley, San Francisco’s top Muni official, has announced his retirement just one month after his assistant sued the agency, accusing Haley of groping and harassing her.

The head of the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, Ed Reiskin, commended Haley’s time at the agency in a press statement.

“John has played a significant role in improving transit for San Francisco, including making Muni more reliable and transforming one of the oldest fleets in the nation to the newest,” Reiskin said. “His experience, expertise, dedication and commitment to improving Muni service has been indispensable.”

Though publicly the agency is announcing Haley’s departure as a retirement, sources with knowledge told the San Francisco Examiner Haley was pressured by the agency to step down after SFMTA staffers — all women — came forward to demand action.

The San Francisco Transit Riders advocacy group also vocally called for Haley’s temporary ouster in a letter to Mayor London Breed.

“As long as Mr. Haley continues to report to work, SFMTA staff have little reason to believe that their concerns are being seriously addressed,” wrote Rachel Hyden, executive director of the transit riders group. “We continue to demand Mr. Haley’s immediate suspension.”

Haley joined the SFMTA in 2010 as director of transit, a position placing him in direct responsibility over the buses and trains ridden by nearly half of all San Franciscans every day. Haley hails from Massachusetts, where he served as general manager of the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, deputy executive director of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, spanning a 30-year transit career.

In a September lawsuit, SFMTA staffer Sabrina Suzuki alleged Haley asked her to fix his computer repeatedly, only to lean forward and grope her, and that Haley made unwelcome comments about women’s sexual appeal to her throughout her time working for him. But Suzuki’s accusations did not exist in a vacuum.

SEE RELATED: Sexual harassment suit alleges head of SF Muni operations inappropriately touched assistant

An anonymous letter obtained by the Examiner in September lambasted Haley for bullying multiple employees. Haley’s former employee, former SFMTA Deputy Director of Transit Sarita Britt, later said Haley was well known for his bombastic tirades.

“He’s very aggressive with his employees and women,” she said, previously. “As far as him talking inappropriately, not promoting you, embarrassing you, that’s been going on at Muni for a long time … he talks down to you. He hollers at you.”

But Haley isn’t alone in his alleged behavior at SFMTA. After Suzuki’s suit, and prompted by the now swelling #MeToo movement, a dam broke at the agency. Accusations flooded in.

SEE RELATED: Harassment investigations at SFMTA go nowhere, employees allege

SEE RELATED: Muni manager still on the job after multiple complaints alleging groping, bullying women

The women who engineer The City’s streets and sidewalks, the women who make Muni buses and trains move, the women who design the bike lanes that save cyclists lives, the women who check for fare cheats in train stations to ensure a fair system — all demanded change, according to records obtained by the Examiner. And sources said their voices added significant pressure that directly led to Haley’s ouster.

More than 60 women from across every division of the 6,000 employee agency banded together to deliver anonymously written testimony to SFMTA leadership on October 22, urging them to quickly and thoroughly address harassment allegations.

“We represent women from various divisions and job classifications throughout the agency” reads the introduction letter to the women’s testimonies. “Many of us are scared to speak up. We all want you to engage us. We all want change.”

Mayor London Breed, responding exactly one week and one day after Haley’s lawsuit, appointed veteran human resources director Dolores Blanding as an independent ombudsperson to investigate the accusations at SFMTA.

SEE RELATED: Breed hires independent ‘high-level manager’ to investigate sexual harassment allegations at Muni

Since Blanding’s arrival, she has penned an email to all staff announcing her open office hours to hear complaints within the agency. “I intend to listen with an open mind and with the knowledge of my more than 20 years of human resources experience with the City and make determinations based on what I learn,” Blanding wrote in a Thursday email.

That same day, Reiskin also sent an email to all SFMTA staff describing next steps for stemming harassment in the agency.

“I realize the issues are much deeper and more troubling (than) I previously appreciated, and I am committed to continuing the dialogue so, together, we can identify those aspects of our culture that allow unproductive and unacceptable behaviors to persist and positively change them,” Reiskin wrote.

Yet one of those changes some women SFMTA staffers demanded was for Haley to be fired or temporarily relieved. They worried that not doing so immediately damaged morale within the agency. Though the women did not name themselves in their testimony, they did list what division of SFMTA they work for. The Examiner is withholding that information to protect their identities.

“I am, for the first time, seriously considering leaving a job that I truly love because I feel that staying would be condoning a culture where bullying and sexual harassment is condoned by inaction. People need to see IMMEDIATE action. This is seriously affecting our productivity and employee morale,” wrote one woman.

“I am a woman of color,” wrote another, who said she was reassigned from her work by Haley without explanation. SFMTA management would not give her work. One day, a supervisor said “since I didn’t have any work to do, I should clean up after the cake parties. ‘You’re good at cleaning,’ my supervisor told me.”

Many of the women took direct aim at Haley. “Please help make this a better place to work by firing John Haley and standing up for your colleagues,” wrote one woman, while another remarked that a month has gone by since Haley’s allegations surfaced yet “Haley is still working, still attending meetings, and still interacting with staff.”

“The silence that followed the news imparted the sense that harassment is tolerated,” wrote another woman. Another wrote, “the silencing of women, the refusal to take bullying, harassment and abuse seriously, and the refusal to discipline those who have displayed dangerous behaviors have not only allowed but encouraged bullying and harassment as a day-to-day accepted practice at the SFMTA.”

Writ large, the women described fear, intimidation, anger, frustration, loneliness and a sense that SFMTA Director of Transportation Ed Reiskin, the agency’s head, has not done enough to respond to allegations in the last month.

“This is the beginning of a movement,” wrote one woman.

Friday, they achieved their first victory.

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