A swarm of community members, most of them bus drivers, crowded into the Santa Cruz Metropolitan Transit District room for a heated bus transit board meeting on Aug. 25. They filled every seat, wrapped around the room, and spilled out into the lobby, about half of them wearing shirts that read “Purple is the New Black,” a reference to the colors of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU).
The union workers had shown up to protest a salary increase for Metro CEO Alex Clifford of 10 percent, to $213,000 annually.
“The CEO, in negotiating this agreement, has put himself first, before all other members of this agency,” said Olivia Martinez, internal organizer for SEIU, Local 521, during the public comment period.
She noted that Metro workers and the SEIU had campaigned hard with agency leaders to help pass Measure D, Santa Cruz County’s 30-year transportation sales tax initiative that will provide $3 million per year to Metro. The measure’s victory in November of 2016 was the difference between a proposed 30 percent cut in service and the 12 percent cut in service that the board ended up approving—still not a strong enough financial situation for them to be putting cash toward the top of the Metro totem pole, Martinez argued.
One board member after another deflected the criticisms, noting that this was not, in fact, a raise, but rather what’s called a “step increase,” built into Clifford’s contract, to get approved when an employee has done a “satisfactory” job. Board Chair Jimmy Dutra said the board had step increases for union employees before it at that same meeting, and it wouldn’t think about denying those. Board member Mike Rotkin said that the board has never denied anyone at Metro a step increase since he first began serving on it in 1979.
The explanations may have quieted the grumblings in the room, but it didn’t eliminate them.
“I wish my step increase was an extra 17 grand,” said Metro driver Brandon Freeman, as he stood outside the crowded meeting room, turned toward his friends packed in behind him.
For him, each step increase was only in the 2 or 3 percent range. And unlike Clifford, he won’t be getting any more, because drivers top out after they reach their sixth increase.
Later, as members gathered around outside the meeting room doors, Martinez clarified that they weren’t criticizing the step increase itself, but rather the way it was handled.
The problem, she tells GT, is that the board unanimously awarded Clifford two simultaneous step increases in one motion, and also put the CEO on a brand new schedule that starts him over at step one—so that he’s at the first stage of six salary increases over the next five years. She feels the increases were all done under the table, in an attempt to avoid public scrutiny.
Clifford’s salary, she says, is out of step with what CEOs of other transportation districts make and also with that of Clifford’s predecessor, Les White, who retired in 2014.
Dutra and Rotkin say that the board granted Clifford two step increases at one time partly because the CEO had foregone last year’s step increase, given the financial tension Metro was in ahead of November’s tightly contested Measure D vote. Rotkin, a five-time former Santa Cruz mayor, says the board would have had no justification for denying an increase to Clifford because “he did a good job” navigating financially uncertain times—closer to “extraordinary,” really, Rotkin says—hence the extra step.
The board had Clifford’s performance evaluation at its June meeting, when it awarded him the increases in closed session, as noted on the agenda, although the agenda did not specifically mention anything about compensation. Dutra notes that a member of the public did show up to speak about Clifford’s evaluation at that June meeting—Metro driver Eduardo Montesino, who was the only person to do so.
Montesino, a former Watsonville mayor, spoke again at the August meeting to say that he wished Clifford’s salary increase, although not necessarily unwarranted, could have been handled with more transparency.
The transit district has faced other recent criticisms as well, most notably from a grand jury report titled “The Bus Stops Here,” which criticized Metro for its fiscal management, service cuts and failures to explore future opportunities and partnerships. The board and Clifford both rejected much of the report in separate responses, showing that it incorrectly claimed Metro was headed for a fiscal cliff, when it in fact has balanced its budget. And some of the grand jury’s suggestions, they argue, are too expensive to be worth the investment.
When it comes to compensation, Rotkin acknowledges that Clifford is making much more money than White did, but says that White made more than his predecessor did, too. Rotkin—a union organizer himself for the American Federation of Teachers—says that talented, experienced CEOs are difficult to come by, and hiring a new one can be expensive. At the same time, Rotkin explains that Metro leaders also keep adding on additional step increases—as they did earlier this summer, when extending Clifford’s contract—to avoid a situation where their CEO is asking himself, “Where else can I go?”
At the end of the day, Clifford is employed “at will” by the board, unlike other Metro workers.
“You want to keep him around for a few years,” Rotkin says. “But at the same time, if he did anything seriously wrong, the board could fire him at the next meeting.”