Can Nat Ford Keep His Job as SFMTA Executive Director?

Photo: Bryan Goebel

Now that it appears unlikely SFMTA Executive Director/CEO Nat Ford is headed to D.C., the focus turns to whether the veteran transit professional can keep his job in San Francisco. While no one we spoke to at City Hall was willing to publicly talk about whether Ford should stay or go, there is a growing concern that he has lost credibility.

“You can’t help asking yourself, ‘does Nat want to be in San Francisco?’ And because of his actions of wanting to move on to somewhere else does San Francisco want Nat?” Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi remarked.

The decision will ultimately be up to the SFMTA Board of Directors, which has the power to hire and fire the executive director. Chair Tom Nolan told the Chronicle that buying out Ford’s contract, at a cost of $390,000, was “in the range of logical possibilities” but so is “maintaining the status quo.”

However, Mirkarimi, the chair of the San Francisco County Transportation Authority (SFCTA) Board, said “they can’t pretend that everything is okay just because Nat didn’t get the job in Washington.”

“The bell has already been rung. The question is what do you do about that, and is there an honest relationship that can be brokered either temporarily or for a structured period of time that makes it very clear what we want within that time frame, or that framework,” said Mirkarimi.

Supervisor Scott Wiener said it was an especially critical time for the SFMTA, considering the agency is currently in the midst of collective bargaining and reforming work rules for Muni operators.

“I like and respect Nat Ford but it’s also very important that we have an executive director of the MTA who is completely focused on the agency, and who wants the job. And it seems like Mr. Ford is looking elsewhere and we need a complete focus on MTA,” Wiener told Streetsblog.

Mirkarimi also raised concerns about the pay history of SFMTA executive directors “who are always looking for the next best thing.” Ford, the highest paid city employee, currently earns a $309,000 annual salary, and his five years at the SFMTA seems to be the industry’s average for transit executives.

“That’s a self perpetuating cycle by the transit directors themselves and by the industry that supports the rotation of these transit directors so that they keep earning more money each time they relocate, and there is no end in sight,” said Mirkarimi. “The theory behind this is in order to get someone that’s competitive and comprable to the industry standard we have to spend $50,000 more each time we get a new director. Pretty soon we’re gonna be at $400,000 for a new director. I find that absurd.”

The SFMTA Board has a closed-door meeting scheduled for Tuesday to talk about Ford, who has not returned our phone calls. Mayor Ed Lee told the Chronicle he would support whatever the board decides.

SFDPW Director Ed Reiskin has emerged as one of the top potential candidates to replace Ford should the board choose to buy out Ford’s contract. SFMTA Deputy Executive Director Carter Rohan has also been mentioned.

SFMTA Director Cheryl Brinkman has been impressed with the way Ford has handled the situation, noting that she thought he did a great job this week and last representing San Francisco at the American Public Transportation Association legislative conference in Washington D.C. However, she said the board must do what’s in the best interest of the SFMTA and the city.

“For me, and I would imagine for the rest of the board, we have to consider all the possibilities,” Brinkman said.