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editorial

Scott’s problems in Atlanta raise questions for MassDOT

Beverly Scott, the newly selected director of the MBTA, faces tough management and fiscal challenges in Massachusetts. The state officials who selected her say she is ready to roll. They describe Scott as an inspirational leader with decades of transit experience behind her.

Still, details that have come to light about Scott’s tenure in Atlanta, where she heads that city’s transit system, raise questions about the Massachusetts vetting process.

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According to reporting by the Globe’s Sean P. Murphy, Scott’s relationship with her Atlanta board was so strained that she and her leadership team were required to undergo counseling with a business psychology consulting firm. The board paid $144,000 to a business psychologist to help Scott and her leadership team improve their management styles.

That in itself is not disqualifying. Leaders who shake things up often face criticism from disgruntled employees who dislike change. Sometimes those employees go above their boss’s head and find advocates, such as board members, to take up their cause. But it’s worrisome that the Massachusetts officials who recruited Scott now say they knew nothing about the dysfunctional relationship between Scott and her board. If they knew of it, at least they could have sought her explanation for what happened.

Instead, Massachusetts officials learned of Scott’s evaluation and counseling only after they decided to hire her. Massachusetts officials also knew nothing about a major management audit of the Atlanta transit system — known as MARTA — which turned up a host of troubling findings that coincided with Scott’s tenure there.

The audit results were made public on Sept. 24, just as Scott was meeting with Massachusetts officials to finalize her hiring here. They included findings that MARTA is in deep fiscal trouble, with an operating deficit of $33 million. The audit also itemized tens of millions of dollars in savings that could be realized if MARTA privatized functions, restructured excessive compensation, and curbed high employee absenteeism.

Scott’s five-year contract in Atlanta expires at the end of this year; she told her board a year ago she would not renew her deal there. After signing a three-year contract with the MBTA that will pay her $220,000 annually, she is now scheduled to take over as the agency’s head on Dec. 17.

The audit turned up a host of troubling findings.

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Scott was recruited by Richard Davey, the state transportation secretary, and two members of the MassDOT/MBTA board of directors. However, Murphy previously reported that Patrick had signaled that he wanted Scott to head the T even before the state board that has authority over the appointment interviewed the two finalists for the position.

A spokesperson for Davey said the hiring process was open and honest. Information that has since come to light about Scott would not have changed any minds, the spokesperson said, because Scott is a nationally known leader with a track record for success.

Whatever her problems in Atlanta, she may be the right person for the job in Massachusetts. But there’s a problem with the process if a governor’s interest in hiring her had a chilling effect on the state’s commitment to due diligence.

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