Muni sends chief Nat Ford packing from the SF transit agency 

Soon after the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency concluded contentious contract talks with transit operators, its board asked Executive Director Nathaniel Ford to step down, which he will do at month’s end.

“The board approached me about making a change, and while we both thought now was the right time, it was ultimately their decision,” Ford said Wednesday night.

Ford had frequently been rumored to be a candidate for other transit posts, most recently in March, when he seemed about to depart for the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority. His apparent desire to leave irritated some agency insiders.

However, SFMTA watchers said no such action made sense until Muni wrapped up negotiations with operators.

Monday night, an independent arbitrator imposed a three-year contract and essentially ended the months-long campaign.

“This just seems like the right time for him and the agency,” SFMTA Chairman Tom Nolan said. “This is not a termination, and I think Nat seemed very much at peace with this decision.”

Ford, who joined the agency in 2006 and earns $308,000 a year, recently signed a two-year contract extension.

Under the terms of his exit, he will receive $375,000, plus three months of health coverage, bringing his total package to $384,000, Nolan said.

The recently completed labor talks, which Muni says will save it $41 million over three years, highlight the difficulty of Ford’s position.

Operators have complained mightily about work rule changes, and their union has sued to prevent some of the changes from being implemented. Yet Muni critics believe the agency could have cut a better bargain with the union.

And those are only the transit headaches. The SFMTA also is responsible for traffic, taxis, pedestrians and bicyclists.

Nolan said the agency is already searching for a successor. Carter Rohan, the agency’s executive deputy director, will assume Ford’s position on an interim basis.

Walter Scott, secretary-treasurer for the Transport Workers Union Local 250-A, which frequently butted heads with Ford, said he wishes the agency chief “the best of luck.”

“We had a pretty good working relationship until the last year and a half,” said Scott. “I don’t wish anything bad upon him.”

Scott did say that a new agency boss could bring a fresh start to the relationship between the union and management.

“Hopefully whoever comes in here can get the morale back up with the operators and can be fair and transparent,” said Scott.

Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi, chair of the San Francisco County Transportation Authority, a planning agency that had a sometimes-icy relationship with the SFMTA, said people should thank Ford for what he’s accomplished at the agency, but that there are lessons to learn from his tenure.

“I think Muni has become much more modernized under Nat’s helm,” said Mirkarimi. “But it’s obvious that MTA still has a way to go.”

Ford said he does not have another job lined up and is looking forward to spending time with friends and helping his daughter move.

“I am proud of what we accomplished at the MTA, particularly in light of the recent completion of our labor negotiations,” Ford said.

Buyout breakdown

Nathaniel Ford became Muni’s executive director in January 2006 and will depart at the end of June at a salary of $308,000. Here is what his departure will cost the agency:

Severance pay: $375,000
Three months of health benefits: $9,000
Total departure package: $384,000

Source: SFMTA

A mixed legacy

Nathaniel Ford ushered in a new contract and oversaw many improvements, but Muni still faces plenty of challenges.

Presided over historic negotiations with transit operators, which Muni expects will save it $41 million over three years. Completed Transit Effectiveness Project, an extensive operational review.

Minus: Although arbitrator imposed contract’s terms, union members rejected it by 2-to-1 vote, highlighting their low morale. Transit recommendations never fully implemented. On-time reliability has never approached voters’ 85 percent mandate.

Established nationally lauded parking-meter program that helps motorists find vacant parking spaces and will charge motorists extra to stay at high-demand spots.
Minus: Cost of citations has increased significantly. Residents frequently complain about the difficulty of finding parking in The City.

Allowed agency and some drivers to sell operating permits for $250,000. As of March, program has raised $6.6 million for the SFMTA.
Minus: Medallion sales program is hugely divisive among drivers. Cab drivers are threatening to strike over several SFMTA policy decisions.

Oversaw implementation of bike plan, which will add 34 miles of cycling lanes.
Minus: Former Mayor Gavin Newsom’s bike-sharing program never came to fruition.

With Newsom, set goal of reducing pedestrian injuries and fatalities.
Minus: Several pedestrians already have died this year, and advocates say more leadership is necessary.

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Will Reisman

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