Port Authority forces out McLean, seeks executive with more transit experience
February 24, 2017 11:43 PM
By Ed Blazina / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Ellen McLean, who steered Port Authority through tough financial times over the past four years, will be out as chief executive officer as the agency and Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald begin a national search for a leader with more public transit experience.
In a unexpected move that some board members didn’t know about until Thursday evening, the authority board Friday approved a four-month extension of Ms. McLean’s contract and an expanded severance package as an off-agenda item at the end its monthly meeting. The board never mentioned that Ms. McLean would be leaving the agency, although board member D. Raja voted against the contract extension because he said he wanted the extension to last beyond June.
“I think this was always anticipated,” Mr. Fitzgerald said in an interview a couple of hours after the board vote. “The change that occurred [when Ms. McLean was appointed in 2013] was needed to stabilize the agency. What we're doing now is doing a national search for someone with experience in transit.”
Ms. McLean, 63, of Shadyside, was hired as the agency's chief financial officer in October 2010 and took over the agency for a year on an interim in basis in February 2013, when former CEO Steve Bland was removed after a series of service cuts due to lack of funding and contentious contract negotiations with the Amalgamated Transit Union. She was named CEO in January 2014, and with improved state funding and better financial management, the agency has stabilized.
She has an annual salary of $224,771.
Mr. Fitzgerald said the agency will conduct a national search for a new executive that will include input from local leaders in transportation, education, industry and foundations, similar to the search three years ago for a new CEO at Pittsburgh International Airport. The same executive search firm, Maryland-based Krauthamer & Associates Inc., will look for a new Port Authority executive, he said.
Krauthamer recommended Christina Cassotis, a Boston-area consultant who has been credited with drawing additional airlines to the airport since her hiring a little more than two years ago.
Authority board chairman Bob Hurley insisted the decision for Ms. McLean to leave was “mutual.” He said Ms. McLean had done a “wonderful” job and because of her leadership the agency is in “a great position.” He credited Ms. McLean for agreeing to stay until June when her contract had expired in January; she was continuing under a verbal agreement until Friday’s action.
But it was clear Ms. McLean isn’t leaving by her own choice. As part of her short contract extension, the board approved doubling her severance of health benefits and salary to a year from six months.
Ms. McLean didn’t mention leaving when she presented her report to the board Friday and left the meeting without talking with reporters. In a statement the authority issued later Friday, she said she was “extremely proud” of her worke but it is “the right time for me to pass the torch to someone else.”
Mr. Raja said there had been talk in recent weeks about replacing Ms. McLean, but he didn’t find out it was moving forward until Thursday. Ms. McLean has done a fine job with limited resources, he said, and warned that a new executive would have trouble improving on her record without more funding.
“I would have preferred her to stay for another year,” Mr. Raja, appointed to the board by the state Senate Republican leadership, said in an interview after the board meeting. “What is it that someone else can come in and do when you’re barely meting expenses?
“Someone else who comes in is going to want to push their own initiatives, and there is going to be no money for that.”
Steve Palonis, president and business agent for the union representing bus drivers, mechanics and office staff, said Mr. Fitzgerald mentioned to him about a week ago that a change would be forthcoming.
“I worked well with Ellen. Quite frankly, I thought she did a hell of a job,” Mr. Palonis said. “But Rich [Fitzgerald] is the guy in charge and this is what he wants to do. It’s political.”
Ms. McLean also led the agency through a major change in fare policy that began Jan. 1. Instead of a two-tier system with fares of $2.50 and $3.75 depending on the length of the ride, passengers using the pre-paid ConnectCard pay a flat $2.50 fare and cash customers pay $2.75.
By staying until June, Ms. McLean will be involved in preparing the authority’s annual budget, which begins in July. She also will oversee planning to implement a cashless fare policy on the light-rail system that is expected to begin in July.
Ed Blazina: email@example.com or 412-263-1470.
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