Baker and the MBTA stage management crisis

Paging Harry Truman. The 33rd president delivered one of the most recognizable lines about leadership in American history, so famous that it has become a cliché. “The buck stops here.” If Truman isn’t your go-to-guy, how about leadership tips from Warren Buffett? Or God, Jr? Or Dale Carnegie?

Dealing with snow is a major leadership test for any public chief executive, and Gov. Charlie Baker, in office a little over one month, is flailing. No one expects him to do anything about the weather. Any governor in the Northeast would be hard-pressed to deal with the kind of snow-pounding that eastern Massachusetts has taken over the past three weeks.

Unfortunately, for metro Boston, the handling of Snowmageddon 2015 has entered soap opera territory. Neither Baker nor MBTA General Manager Beverly Scott have met during the worst period of winter weather since the fabled Blizzard of 1978. The Springfield Republican noted the decision to issue a travel ban is a complex one. But talking to the head of the state’s largest transit agency shouldn’t be.

The origin of the communication breakdown is unclear. Baker’s comments that Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack “talks to the MBTA” and “[Scott] doesn’t report to me,” and “I don’t have any direct authority over the MBTA at all” strain credibility. Scott continues to defend the agency; the Boston Herald’s Howie Carr dubbed her “babbling Beverly.”

Crisis management obliterates the lines on an agency organizational chart. Or it should. Pollack was conspicuously absent from the tableau of officials – all men – arrayed behind Baker at Monday’s press conference.

In the war of words between Baker and Scott, the silence of Pollack speaks volumes, particularly given the high profile role that Patrick’s second transportation secretary Jim Aloisi (who now contributes to CommonWealth magazine) played in the criticism and dismissal of Dan Grabauskas, the popular former MBTA general manager who was a Republican holdover from the Romney administration.

If Baker is taking a page from this Patrick playbook, it’s a baffling one to rip out. Scott is nearing the end of her contract. The governor could make an argument not to renew it rather than go this theatre-of-the-absurd route. (If her contract contains the fine print that she must be paid anyway if let go, expect the same mini-firestorm that erupted when Grabauskas was shown the door.)

Although the knives are out for Scott, a no-nonsense woman if there ever was one, she is determined not to take the fall for the MBTA’s latest fail. A Baker pick will not turn the MBTA into a lean, mean 21st century commuting machine.  “Lopping off the T’s senior leadership might be expedient,” concluded Boston Globe’s Thomas Farragher. “But the real issue is going to require something exceedingly rare on Beacon Hill: resolve and leadership and lots of money.”

The governor’s attempts to indict Scott and her senior managers are likely to backfire. If and when Scott is gone, the commute will be the same as it ever was. As Boston Globe commenter ScratchCook observed,”…[Commuters] know the lack of investment by the politicians over many years is the main cause of the problems with the T. The Deval blame game is only good for a short time…That lament will grow old…And unlike transforming Harvard Pilgrim, all of the governor’s decisions on the MBTA will be very public knowledge.”

Buck-stopping is not weed-wacking. But it is an essential component of governance as important, if not more so, than an intimate knowledge of the Bay State’s spreadsheets. When it comes to issuing travel bans or holding meetings with an agency head to head off a crisis, the governor is the decider.  Many people who depend on the T can relate to Harry Truman.

GABRIELLE GURLEY

MUNICIPAL MATTERS

Scot Lehigh says Boston’s snow plowing and removal efforts have been “subpar.” Mayor Marty Walsh, he says, is “crabby” and “cantankerous” at that suggestion, and Lehigh is now trying to crowd-source the question by having readers ref the dispute.

Holbrook police are searching for a .357 magnum revolver a man says he lost when he fell into a snowbank.

Lowell puts the finishing touches on a land swap with the National Park Service that will allow the Hamilton Canal District to proceed, the Sun reports.

Methuen coaches urge the City Council to renovate Nicholson Stadium at a cost of $2 to $4 million, theEagle-Tribune reports.

The Fall River firefighters union is pushing new Mayor Sam Sutter to apply for a Homeland Security SAFER grant to restore positions cut by the previous mayor.

OLYMPICS 

Two Boston lawmakers plan to push legislation that would require public disclosure of all public and private expenditures related to a Boston Olympics. Mayor Marty Walsh suggests if there’s a need for a bill to ensure transparency, Boston should simply give up its designs on hosting the Games.

WASHINGTON/NATIONAL/INTERNATIONAL

The nation’s top nutrition advisory panel decides to drop its warning about cholesterol-laden food, the Washington Post reports.

BUSINESS/ECONOMY

The region’s businesses have taken a pelting from the serial storms, with one estimate pegging the cost to the area economy of a snow day that shuts down businesses and state offices at $265 million.

HEALTH CARE

The unending snow has created a challenge for the region’s hospitals, which have had trouble safely discharging patients to go home and counting on employees to be able to get to work.

A U.S. News & World Report analysis finds that doctors in rural, low-income regions are performing angioplasties and other catheterization procedures at a much higher rate than physicians in large urban hospitals, potentially putting patients at higher risk and collecting millions in Medicare payments.

TRANSPORTATION

The Battle of the Bs — Beverly Scott and Charlie Baker. The two officials host dueling press conferences, State House News reports.

Local officials in the Salem area criticize the T for shutting down, the Salem News reports.

ENERGY/ENVIRONMENT

Critics of the Pilgrim power plant say insiders at the nuclear facility claim it was minutes from sounding the alarm when the reactor shut down during the recent blizzard. Plant and NRC officials call the allegations “irresponsible” and said there was no danger of a meltdown.

Quincy joins Boston and Hull as communities that have received waivers from the state to dump snow into the harbor.

Old Sturbridge Village is laying plans to build a solar farm on-site, the Telegram & Gazette reports.

Two South Coast lawmakers are filing a bill to require utilities to purchase a set amount of power from offshore wind producers, an effort to give the flailing industry a kickstart.

CRIMINAL JUSTICE

Aaron Hernandez’s fiancee is granted immunity, the Associated Press reports.

One possible side benefit of mountains of snow: lower crime rates in Boston.

Cities across the nation are beginning to grapple with how to examine 400,000 untested rape kits for DNA clues, Governing reports.

Former Boston police commissioner Ed Davis is signing on as an adviser to a Massachusetts company whose technology helps police pinpoint the location of gunshots inside buildings, something Davis says can be “invaluable” when police are confronting the siege of a building.

One-time Boston FBI agent John Connolly, whose second-degree murder conviction was thrown out by an appeals court last year, will have his quest for freedom heard tomorrow by a Florida court.

A new report from the Vera Institute of Justice finds that local and county jails are becoming warehouses for the poor, drug-addicted, and mentally ill, many of whom are held for minor charges.

MEDIA

NBC News anchor Brian Williams is suspended for six months without pay, Politico reports. Some observers tell the New York Times it is hard to see how Williams returns from such an extended absence.

Jon Stewart plans to leave the Daily Show later this year after more than 15 years. The Herald‘s Jessica Heslamand the Globe‘s Don Aucoin take stock of the profound ways Stewart and his show have shaped the politics and media landscape.

Meet the Author

Gabrielle Gurley

Senior Associate Editor, CommonWealth

About Gabrielle Gurley

Gabrielle covers several beats, including mass transit, municipal government, child welfare, and energy and the environment. Her recent articles have explored municipal hiring practices in Pittsfield, public defender pay, and medical marijuana, and she has won several national journalism awards for her work. Prior to coming to CommonWealth in 2005, Gabrielle wrote for the State House News Service, The Boston Globe, and other publications. She launched her media career in broadcast journalism with C-SPAN in Washington, DC. The Philadelphia native holds degrees from Boston College and Georgetown University.

About Gabrielle Gurley

Gabrielle covers several beats, including mass transit, municipal government, child welfare, and energy and the environment. Her recent articles have explored municipal hiring practices in Pittsfield, public defender pay, and medical marijuana, and she has won several national journalism awards for her work. Prior to coming to CommonWealth in 2005, Gabrielle wrote for the State House News Service, The Boston Globe, and other publications. She launched her media career in broadcast journalism with C-SPAN in Washington, DC. The Philadelphia native holds degrees from Boston College and Georgetown University.

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Monday, the snow pounded Boston all day long and the roads were a mess, but the MBTA limped along until it was shut down around 7 p.m. Today, the snow is scheduled to taper off and the major roads are clear, but the T is shut down for the entire day. No wonder Gov. Charlie Baker is calling the T’s performance unacceptable.