The new chief operating officer for the Regional Transportation District was terminated early from his previous job at a transit agency in the Detroit area and faced questions about excessive expense reimbursements.
But an RTD spokesman said Monday that officials carefully vetted Michael Ford’s background before hiring him for the newly created $230,000-a-year position and attributed the circumstances behind Ford’s departure to politics, not wrongdoing.
Michael Ford served for more than two years as CEO of the Regional Transit Authority of Southeast Michigan, a coordinating organization for four transportation agencies. Metro Detroit voters in November 2016 narrowly rejected — by a 1 percentage point margin — a $4.7 billion transit expansion plan that Ford had championed.
In March 2017, the RTA’s board decided to terminate Ford’s contract “without cause,” seven months before its expiration. The decision came after the board had reviewed $37,000 in travel, cell phone, mileage and other expense reimbursements charged by Ford during his tenure.
Ford repaid nearly $19,000 for expenses that were considered overpayments, according to the Detroit Free Press.
“We were well aware of the circumstances surrounding Mr. Ford’s departure from the RTA in the Detroit area, and he was very forthcoming in discussing exactly what led to him leaving,” RTD spokesman Scott Reed said. “We did carefully vet the situation and received very detailed information, especially from the RTA’s board of directors.”
In one letter of reference provided by RTD, vice chair Elisabeth R. Gerber called Ford “nothing short of a visionary leader” who was made “an unfortunate scapegoat” for the election loss. It was the latest of several failed efforts to expand transit in the Detroit area.
After the board’s early termination of Ford’s contract, chairman Paul Hillegonds said in a news release that the ballot loss meant that Ford wouldn’t be needed to implement the rejected transit plan.
He attributed the expense overages to calculation errors and said Ford’s repayment was for improper cell phone, mileage and health insurance-related expenses.
Prior to Ford’s work at the Detroit-area RTA, he was CEO of the Ann Arbor Area Transportation Authority. He also has worked for transportation agencies in Oregon, Washington and California.
RTD officials interviewed several candidates for the new operations chief position, Reed said, adding that Ford will be responsible for providing better coordination between the bus and rail operation departments.
“RTD needs a coordinated approach to all of our transportation services, including light rail, commuter rail, bus, Access-a-Ride, Call-n-Ride and Vanpool,” Reed said. “We wanted to have one person overseeing all of those elements to be sure we are looking at this as one collaborative transportation provision agency.”