RTD board appoints 1st woman as transit agency's CEO

Jeffco representative was the sole 'no' vote


Debra A. Johnson, the current deputy CEO of Long Beach Transit in southern California, will be the next CEO and general manager of the Regional Transportation District.

On Aug. 25, RTD’s board of directors approved Johnson by a vote of 14-1, which prompted the negotiation of an employment agreement with her.

“I have been preparing to lead at this level for more than 25 years,” Johnson said during a video presentation to the public in August.

She wrote in her application to the board that she directs the operations of the Long Beach agency, which serves 14 cities and 23 million customers. Johnson has a master's degree in public administration and has also worked for transit systems in Washington, D.C., San Francisco and Los Angeles County.

“We made history tonight and I look forward to making a lot more positive history,” said Director Troy L. Whitmore, District K, referring to Johnson’s new status as the first woman, and also the first Black woman, to lead the eight-county, approximately 3,000-employee agency.

There were nearly 60 applicants to succeed interim general manager Paul J. Ballard, and an executive search committee narrowed the finalists to Johnson, Adelee Le Grand and Tina Quigley. The board deliberated on a separate call closed to the public before rejoining the meeting to take a vote.

Director Natalie Menten, representing parts of Lakewood and Golden in District M, was the sole vote against the hiring resolution, although not because she opposed Johnson. She said the three women before the board had similar qualities and experience. Menten’s dissatisfaction stemmed from her desire to cut the salary for the position of general manager.

“My vote tonight is in opposition to what is going to be another bloated executive salary at RTD,” she said. “I will not stand quiet as the taxpayers will be on the hook for another big bill.”

Menten said that in the past, she attempted to cut $100,000 from the general manager’s roughly $295,000 salary. She pointed out that the pay was far in excess of the Colorado Department of Transportation’s executive director and even the governor.

“So the question is, how did RTD get so far off track with excessive salaries, when at the end of the day less than 3% of the population uses RTD?” she asked.

In an online survey that gathered 685 responses, the public rated the three finalists similarly, with 37% saying Johnson was “very qualified” compared to 33% each for Le Grand and Quigley.

“Debra has the operating experience working with larger agencies in bigger cities, but applying a smart, efficient approach to ensuring sound operational processes,” wrote one anonymous respondent.

“Seems to have a lot of executive experience. Liked her presentation, spoke a lot about what she will do for the organization and how she would handle the COVID-19 pandemic,” wrote another.

“She seems solid, yet unspectacular,” noted someone who gave her a middling rating on the one-to-10 scale. “If we want to maintain the status quo, this is the choice to make.”

Lance L. Longenbohn, the president of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1001, said that the operators' union is "very pleased with the Board of Directors' selection of Debra Johnson. We agree that Debra was the best overall choice, and look forward to working together."

This story is from Colorado Politics, a statewide political and public policy news journal. Used by permission. For more, visit coloradopolitics.com.


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