By VALERIE BROWN and JUDY ARNOLD
SMART recently completed a nationwide search for a general manager. Our needs were clear: We required a manager who will build a very complicated, dynamic project with dozens of contracts and engineers, planners, scientists, accountants and lawyers. We needed someone to lead a staff of fewer than 20 in transforming a regional transit system into one that seamlessly operates trains at 70 mph — while crossing public streets and private crossings — and manages a maintenance facility, an operation center, ticket machines and train attendants.
We needed a leader to set up an administration that is transparent and accountable to the public in spending public funds.
Once we conducted interviews with the three finalists, we determined that we also needed a manager who knows Marin County and Sonoma County issues and how the political and social transportation system works in the Bay Area — the permit and regulatory agencies and where to go for funding.
Finally, SMART needed a commander to prevent the few who lost over Measure Q from creating doubt, confusion and misinformation with one last attempt at stopping what 70 percent of the voters in both counties approved.
The threat of a SMART repeal effort drove up the cost of finding a new general manager. This risk factor caused the salary demand to escalate.
As the board grappled with finding the best candidate, we recognized a transition might be counterproductive in addressing a potential negative ballot measure. We also realized we already had such a person on board, Farhad Mansourian, the director of Marin County’s public works department, respected and beloved by the Marin County family and the Sonoma SMART board members. As SMART’s interim executive director, he had not applied for the position of permanent general manager.
We appealed to Mansourian’s sense of public service with a financial package that was comparable to executives with his qualifications and level of experience nationwide. There are executives of transportation agencies in states with a far lower cost of living than the Bay Area whose salaries are at this level or higher.
The bottom line was the SMART board unanimously agreed that we have the right person as our general manager.
Mansourian has proven over the last several months how highly qualified he is to lead this project and how he will minimize costs and maximize the public benefit of SMART, which is the most fiscally prudent thing we can do to protect the taxpayers’ interests.
Mansourian’s deep knowledge of Marin and Sonoma counties means he will not need a transition phase to understand the North Bay. His 31 years of experience here are infinitely valuable to steady SMART and make sure it gets on track — and stays there.
Building SMART is more than a rail project. It takes leadership, administrative, engineering and fiscal experience with a large dose of political savvy. Mansourian has shown he has the rare combination of all these skills, and it will take every bit of them to make SMART happen in the midst of the worst recession since the Depression, which the SMART opponents are using to create doubt over the voters’ mandate.
In a half-billion dollar project, Mansourian’s overall compensation is a very small economic consideration for a position that will make a huge impact on the success or failure of the project.
After a thoughtful and deliberative process of reviewing all of our options the SMART board is sure we have the winning team to give the voters what they asked for, a green alternative to gridlock. We’re ready.
Valerie Brown is a Sonoma County supervisor and chair- woman of SMART. Judy Arnold is a Marin County supervisor and vice chairwoman of SMART.