Board Not Boring

The private management company running the Southwest Ohio Regional Transit Authority (SORTA) benefited from cronyism with its embattled board chair, Benjamin Gettler, according to board member Tom L

Jan 12, 2005 at 2:06 pm

The private management company running the Southwest Ohio Regional Transit Authority (SORTA) benefited from cronyism with its embattled board chair, Benjamin Gettler, according to board member Tom Luken.

Luken, a former mayor of Cincinnati, a former congressman and the father of Mayor Charlie Luken, is the lone member of the SORTA board speaking out against fare increases or elimination of Sunday service (see "SORTA a Mess," issue of Dec. 22-28, 2004).

Gettler has recently caught a lot of flak for publicly calling the Access service for disabled riders a "burden." Luken contends he also forced the board to hire his friend's management company, though its bid wasn't the lowest.

The current general manager of SORTA, Michael Setzer, comes from a transit management company called PTM, of which he's also executive vice president. When the former general manager of SORTA, Paul Jablonski, left, the SORTA board put out a request for proposals to replace him.

"I was nominally the chairman of the search committee but I knew better than that," Luken says. "Gettler was running it and I said so at the time."

SORTA received only two serious bids, Luken says: one from PTM and another from First Transit.

First is the industry leader in transit management, Luken says.

It was the company that supplied Jablonski and trained Setzer. It also undercut PTM's bid by at least $55,000, he says.

But Gettler called a "secret meeting" — an executive session, closed to the public — that Luken refused to attend on principle.

"They just went into this secret meeting, came out and said, 'We're hiring these guys (PTM) because we like them,' " he says.

Luken says Setzer now pulls in $200,000 yearly from his job with SORTA alone. He's trying to find out how much Setzer makes on top of that through PTM's contracts with a dozen smaller transit companies across the country.

"Shortly after Gettler took over, it became evident that they were very close," Luken says. Since then, "The board's been pretty much a rubber stamp for the Setzer/Gettler combine."

Meanwhile, the other board members are treating what should be considered a public service like a business, Luken says. For example, he calls board member Daniel Peters, chair of the Buckeye Institute — a conservative think tank — an "unreconstructed conservative" who has said buses ought to be privatized.

The Buckeye Institute's Web site says it "works to improve the lives of all Ohioans through the pursuit of practical and effective market-oriented approaches to public policy."

"Well, last time I checked, business usually has income which the business generates," Luken says. "In this case, SORTA never raised a dime. They get the handout from the city and handout from the feds."

But SORTA's not responsible to voters or much of anyone.

"There's no such responsibility, there is nothing akin to stewardship," Luken says. "The way people view the board when they come on it may be significant. Somebody might come on the board, might think it's like the ballet board or the symphony or some nonprofit board."

He could well be referring to Melody Sawyer Richardson, who also chairs the Cincinnati Ballet board. In fact, he charges most of the board members with showing more interest in providing shuttles for Riverfest or Bengals games — also on the chopping block, with Sunday service — than regular bus or Access services.

Stephan Louis, the principal opponent to an unsuccessful 2002 bid for a county light rail tax, also sits on the SORTA board, though Luken says he "wouldn't characterize him as being philosophically a foe of public transit."

Meanwhile, conservatism seems to run through the Gettler family as well as the SORTA board: It was the chairman's wife, Hamilton County Public Library Trustee Deliaan Gettler, who forced the cancellation of an MTV "Rock the Vote" event at the main library just four days before it was scheduled (see All the News That Fits, issue of Oct. 20-26, 2004).

The couple donated more than $30,000 to Republican candidates and organizations in 2003-04. That's more in donations than many of the people riding buses earn in salaries.

All The News That Fits: Leads, entrails and tales we couldn't get to.