In seven years at the helm of the Port Authority, CEO Steve Bland earned widespread praise from board members, transportation professionals and the business community for leading an overhaul that reshaped and modernized transit service, cut costs and averted outright crisis, but never lifted the agency out of its financial doldrums.
Ending months of speculation and behind-the-scenes maneuvering, the authority board Friday voted 5-3 to fire him, a move engineered by Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald.
The motion was to dismiss Mr. Bland "without cause," meaning he is entitled to half his annual salary, or $92,500, in severance pay. Mr. Bland did not attend the meeting and was unavailable afterward, but he has retained an attorney.
Jack Brooks, who was ousted as board chairman at the same meeting Friday, said he expects Mr. Bland to sue.
"What did he do?" a visibly shaken Mr. Brooks asked reporters after the meeting. "He didn't do anything wrong. The problem with Mr. Bland is he's an administrator, not a politician. That doesn't work in this town, evidently."
The board chose Ellen McLean, the agency's chief financial officer, to serve as interim CEO pending a national search for a permanent successor.
Officials familiar with the situation said Mr. Bland chafed at Mr. Fitzgerald's insistence on controlling day-to-day operations at the agency. For his part, Mr. Fitzgerald grew impatient with what he perceived as Mr. Bland's resistance to following orders.
At a news conference after the vote, Mr. Fitzgerald made it clear that he intends to set policy for county-related authorities. He also said Mr. Bland did not act quickly enough to implement changes he wanted, including better signage at subway stations, real-time arrival information for transit riders and conversion of buses to natural gas.
"A lot of things that I have wanted to do have not been done, have been resisted, have not been looked at."
He said Mr. Bland estranged transit-supporting state lawmakers with frequent complaints about inadequate state funding. He said poor management-labor relations at the authority forced him to step into last year's union contract negotiations.
"We had to insert ourselves or that would've never gotten done," Mr. Fitzgerald said.
Agencies like the Port Authority are technically independent of the county, run by boards that are appointed by the county executive. Mr. Fitzgerald in his first year in office has signaled that he intends to closely control those entities.
"They're advisory," he said of the boards. "At the end of the day, I've got to be the one who sets the policies."
To oust Mr. Bland, Mr. Fitzgerald needed five of the nine votes on a board that began last year solidly in support of its CEO. Since then, Mr. Fitzgerald has appointed four new members, replacing those whose terms expired. All four -- Constance Parker, Joe Brimmeier, Tom Donatelli and John Tague -- voted to fire Mr. Bland on Friday.
The fifth vote came from Jeff Letwin, a lawyer who was appointed by former county Executive Dan Onorato in 2005.
"I think Steve's done an admirable job and been a fantastic executive," Mr. Letwin said after the vote. He said Mr. Bland has been unable to secure a dedicated, reliable source of state funding that would lift the authority out of its continuing financial bind.
"We need someone who's going to be better positioned at all levels, particularly Harrisburg, to get that dedicated funding," said Mr. Letwin, who took over as chairman after the same five-member bloc ousted Mr. Brooks.
Mr. Letwin said he respected Mr. Fitzgerald's desire to make a change, noting that the county contributes significant money to the transit agency.
"If Steve and the county executive are not getting along, whether it's Steve's fault or the executive's fault ... it makes it very difficult for the organization to continue along those lines," he said.
Even though he wouldn't talk about it before Friday's meeting, Mr. Fitzgerald's longtime goal had been to install Mr. Brimmeier, a political ally and former Pennsylvania Turnpike CEO, as interim CEO at the transit agency.
After word of that plan got out, Gov. Tom Corbett, who came up with $30 million last year to rescue the transit agency from deep service cuts, made it known to Mr. Fitzgerald that he didn't want Mr. Brimmeier in that role. With most of the $30 million still unpaid, and the authority seeking additional funds in the governor's upcoming transportation funding plan, Mr. Corbett had considerable leverage.
Mr. Brimmeier, angered by recent news coverage that revisited controversies over nepotism and patronage from his turnpike days, said he told Mr. Fitzgerald and board members Thursday that he would not take the position.
"I never wanted the job, and quite frankly, everything worked out to my benefit. I can continue to enjoy my retirement, work with my fellow board members and lend my expertise to Ellen [McLean]," he said.
The board twice retreated into private executive session Friday, first to discuss Mr. Bland and later to debate about the election of officers for the coming year.
Mr. Brooks, a retired executive with the Greater Pennsylvania Regional Council of Carpenters, has been a board member since 1996 and had been chairman since 2003.
He said Mr. Fitzgerald demanded an undated letter of resignation from him shortly after he took over as county executive, and made the same demand of at least two other board members, presumably so he could remove them at any time if they didn't vote in accord with his wishes.
Mr. Fitzgerald confirmed that he demands such letters from his appointees.
Mr. Brooks refused to sign a letter, saying, "I wouldn't lower myself to that level."
Asked if Mr. Fitzgerald had consulted with him about replacing Mr. Bland, he said, "He probably dislikes me more than Steve, so no."
There was little public discussion by board members before the vote to fire Mr. Bland.
One supporter, board member Amanda Green Hawkins, said Mr. Bland deserved a hearing.
"What I have witnessed is a concerted and methodical effort to get rid of Steve," she said, adding that he was "treated as something to be readily discarded and not with the dignity and respect that we all want."
Also voting against terminating Mr. Bland were board members Mavis Rainey and Eddie Edwards Jr. Mr. Brooks did not cast a vote.
Jon Schmitz: email@example.com or 412-263-1868. Visit the PG's transportation blog, The Roundabout, at www.post-gazette.com/Roundabout. Twitter: @pgtraffic. First Published February 2, 2013 5:00 AM