Paying two CEOs at once? Baton Rouge leaders question CATS’ handling of taxpayer money. | News

A number of Baton Rouge leaders are questioning how the board overseeing Baton Rouge public transit is managing taxpayer money after it almost approved paying two different people CEO-level salaries at the same time.

The Capital Area Transit System’s Board of Commissioners had planned to approve a new contract for CEO Dwana Williams on Tuesday, but delayed the vote after some Metro Council members urged the board to first address the status of former CEO Bill Deville.

In April, CATS’ board stripped Deville of his duties but did not terminate his contract, which means he is still collecting a $190,000 annual salary until his contract expires in September 2023. Board members selected Williams, previously the chief operating officer, to be interim CEO, even as Deville remains employed.

In interviews with The Advocate on Tuesday and Wednesday, half the members of the Metro Council suggested it is time to introduce new leadership on the CATS board.

“They haven’t done their job,” Councilwoman Denise Amoroso said. “They’ve obviously been extremely careless, and this is taxpayer’s money. This is not CATS money, this is taxpayer money.”

Amoroso, along with Republican council members Jennifer Racca, Aaron Moak, Brandon Noel, Laurie Adams and Dwight Hudson, said they supported leadership changes on the nine-person board of commissioners.

“The current board will have to show they have an interest in righting these wrongs in a massive way,” Noel said. “Issues are continuing to get worse there. The only control we have is by replacing the board and replacing them with people who have a true interest in reforming the entire system to make it function properly.”

All six voiced support for commissioners Patrick Downs and Melissa DeGeneres, who were appointed to the board by the current iteration of the Metro Council that largely took office in January 2021. They all also said they support Metro Councilwoman Carolyn Coleman, who became the Metro Council’s representative on the board in January.

“I would just as soon rid the whole board of anyone that has been there before this current council and administration have appointed them,” Moak said. “The people that we’ve appointed, that we’ve researched and looked into … those to me would stay.”

The Metro Council began to publicly take an interest in the CATS board following the April meeting when Deville was stripped of his duties. The board entered the meeting intending to terminate Deville’s contract due to a series of scandals. They changed course when Metro Council Pro Tem LaMont Cole attended the meeting to urge the board members to not terminate Deville’s contract because he feared the agency could face legal action in retaliation. The board then settled on stripping his title and duties while allowing the contract to remain in effect.

Racca said she began to push within Metro Council for replacements on the board of commissioners after the April meeting. That effort was tabled when other council members decided to see how the board would handle the situation, but Tuesday’s “debacle” reigned her effort to push for replacements, she said.

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The Metro Council must form a committee to investigate the conduct of boards under its supervision in order to establish a clear basis for removing board members, according to the city-parish Plan of Government.

Members of boards of commissioners may be removed only on the grounds of “neglect of duty or misconduct in office” as determined by the Metro Council, according to the Plan of Government.

“I am ready to move forward with forming the committee,” Racca said, “and I am waiting for Carolyn Coleman, for she and I to collaborate on that.”

Hudson said the council should take its time with the process before jumping to removals, but he did say the council could call on commissioners to resign.

“As a council member who has removed people from positions before, it’s a complicated process and a delicate process,” Hudson said. “Just as my criticism of the board was in mishandling the situation with Bill Deville, I want to be sure we handle this situation appropriately.”

Kahli Cohran, president of the CATS board, said he hasn’t been directly contacted by any council member since the April meeting when Deville’s duties were stripped. Cohran said he has since reached out to council members directly and has scheduled meetings with several of them to provide details on Deville’s status at CATS.

“I understand the concerns expressed by the general public and the Metro Council members,” Cohran said. “I assure you that we do have a plan in place to address the concerns of Mr. Deville’s status with the agency. That will be coming to closure in the very near future.

“I do not desire to go back and forth in the press with (the Metro Council),” Cohran added. “My intent is to fully inform them of our position and where we’re at.”

Coleman declined to take a position on the removal of board members and said she would take the lead on future discussions around removing commissioners.

“We have had some discussion regarding this before,” Coleman wrote in a text Wednesday afternoon to The Advocate. “I am the representative on that board, and I would like to be able to have a conversation.”

Council members Rowdy Gaudet, Cleve Dunn Jr., Darryl Hurst and Chauna Banks, as well as Council Pro Tem LaMont Cole, said they will follow Coleman’s lead because of her proximity to the board and don’t have a position yet.


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