Baker shuffles top T management
Poftak will run agency until new GM hired
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Gov. Charlie Baker announced that Steve Poftak, the vice chair of the T’s Fiscal and Management Control Board, will leave his volunteer post on the board and assume the role of acting general manager on July 1. Brian Shortsleeve, the current acting general manager and chief administrator, will leave his post at that time to return to the private sector. (He declined to say what he would be doing.) He will also fill Poftak’s position on the board in what Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack called a “double-switch.”
Once a new general manager is hired later this year, Poftak will return to his job at the Harvard Kennedy School and also return to the board, replacing Lisa Calise. Calise is leaving to focus on her job as vice president for administration and finance at UMass Boston, which is struggling with a deficit.
Poftak doesn’t have any experience running a large organization like the T, but he has distinguished himself during his time on the board as someone willing to dig into the nitty-gritty of the agency. Baker announced that two of Shortsleeve’s lieutenants will move up to support Poftak. Jeffrey Gonneville, the chief operating officer of the T, will become the deputy general manager, and Michael Abramo, the chief financial officer, will become chief administrator. Neither Gonneville nor Abramo are candidates for the GM’s position, and their status at the T is unclear once that post is filled.
On the Fiscal and Management Control Board, Poftak has kept his political philosophy to himself, but his views are likely in line with those of Shortsleeve. Poftak runs the Rappaport Institute for Greater Boston at the Kennedy School and before that worked at the Pioneer Institute, a champion of privatization.
Pollack said Poftak, who serves as an unpaid volunteer on the Fiscal and Management Control Board, will be paid at a level commensurate with what she believes the MBTA’s general manager should be paid, which she said would be in the high $200,000-range to the low $300,000-range.
She said she and Poftak were still working out the details of his financial compensation, but wanted to send a signal to candidates for the GM job that the T is serious about attracting a “turnaround CEO” willing to stay three to five years. Over the past decade, the general manager’s job at the T has at times rotated almost as fast as a turnstyle at rush hour.
For salary comparison purposes, Baker is paid $151,800 a year, Pollack makes $161,500, and Shortsleeve earns $175,000. “Brian is far below market,” Pollack said, adding that Shortsleeve had declined raises throughout his two years at the T. “We know we need to set higher salaries at the T,” she said.
One sign of the higher-salary mentality emerged with the hiring of a manager for the Green Line extension into Somerville and Medford. John Dalton was hired at a base salary of $280,000, which with add-ons and incentives could yield compensation of $442, 577 during his first year on the job.
Pollack said she set the search in motion when it became clear that a new GM would not be hired by the time Shortsleeve left. She was unclear whether she approached Poftak about filling the post on an interim basis or he approached her; they ended up suggesting it was a mutual decision.
Baker declined to say how many people have applied for the GM’s job, but said the number is more than five and less than 15. “I think this search is going to work out well,” the governor said, pointing out that the T is now an attractive landing spot for a top manager because so much has changed for the better at the agency since the winter of 2015 when heavy snow shut it down.
When asked if the agency needs more funding, particularly in light of recent news of a financially stressed pension system, Baker said the management of the T has shown that “there are ways to do things smarter and better and cheaper at the T.” He said the pension problems are a symptom of the T’s problems.“I would argue that the main reason the pension system is in so much trouble is that, like the T before it, it was completely off the books, totally opaque, nobody had any idea what was going on there,” he said. “They argued for years that they weren’t a public system even though there were public dollars going into it and it was only after the Legislature passed and we signed the public records reform legislation and they suddenly became part of the public dialogue that a lot of the information associated with the size of the problem became known. We probably need to have a pretty robust conversation about what to do about it at this point because, if you follow through and let this ship run the way it’s currently running, there’s definitely not enough money in that system to fund the retirements of the people who are currently retired, much less the people who are going to become eligible to retire.”
Asked whether his response meant the T doesn’t need more money, Baker said: “For now, I think we should keep working the way we’ve been working.”