Muni chief Nathaniel Ford chose a bad time to look at other transit jobs

Metropolitan transit executives are a lot like baseball managers and school superintendents — no matter what kind of record they compile, there is always another job waiting.

Think Bill Rojas, who left San Francisco schools in disarray, only to be hired by Dallas as the highest-paid superintendent in the country — until he brought that system to its knees and got run out of town.

Muni chief Nathaniel Ford has actually kept The City’s transit system propped up since his arrival in 2006 and made some improvements, but he’s had one foot dangling off the bus almost since he arrived. And with Muni, that’s a dangerous thing.

Over the years, Ford, who is the highest-paid city employee pulling in more than $300,000 annually, has been rumored to be interested in jobs in Los Angeles, Houston and New York. But it’s now public knowledge that he’s been hotly — some might say desperately — pursuing the top airport transit post in Washington, D.C., and at this point, he better hope he can punch his ticket, because it’s going to be a bumpy ride back home.

The San Francisco Examiner reported last week that Ford is still in the running for the Washington job but that the national search is now reopened. Ford better hope he gets the post, because his options back home are getting a bit, uh, limited.

To say that the members of the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency are perplexed at this point would be like saying Clipper cards are a bit problematic. Ford’s bosses knew he was a finalist for the Washington job, but the delays in the selection process have severely hurt his standing at home.

SFMTA board Chairman Tom Nolan told The Washington Post that “it’s just appalling how they’ve treated” the Muni chief. Yet he hasn’t exactly been wowing his current bosses. Nolan has asked for an emergency board meeting Tuesday to discuss the situation and Supervisor David Chiu is expected to call for a hearing on the status of the SFMTA.

If Ford wanted to pick a worse time for his departure, he’d be hard-pressed to find one. His agency, chronically in debt, is searching for ways to find new funds, almost all of which involve a series of new taxes and fees that have proven difficult to sell to voters. And a recent report found that customer satisfaction with Muni is at its lowest point in 10 years — or even before a historic system meltdown that nearly cost then-Mayor Willie Brown a second term.

Moreover, Ford’s own personal financial situation — he has back tax problems — is one of the reasons Washington officials have balked at hiring him. (And ironically, his finances are at the root of his big push to leave.)

Ford just signed a three-year contract extension in January which no doubt can’t leave his bosses at the SFMTA too pleased, especially since if they part ways, he stands to take a $390,000 buyout. If he leaves on his own accord for another job he won’t get the money, and that’s what his bosses will be discussing this week.

How do you think it will look for a cash-strapped agency looking to find hundreds of millions of dollars over the coming years to pay to buy out the contract of its outgoing director? About the only thing more unpopular would be announcing that Muni fares would be doubled for its very unhappy customers.

At this point, it’s fair to say, Ford has few choices. He can hope and pray that he gets the Washington job (and soon) or he can announce that he’s given up his search and wants to make San Francisco’s trains run on time. Or he can just quit, which doesn’t seem to fit with his long-term financial plan.

But if the SFMTA board even considers giving him a buyout, then it should just announce that it’s also giving up on the idea of raising taxes for Muni because the backlash is going to be more severe than any of its subway accidents.
And right now, they’re on a crash course.

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