Four board members voice praise for T chief

By Noah Bierman
Globe Staff / July 31, 2009

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Four members of the MBTA’s board of directors fired off a strongly worded letter yesterday defending General Manager Daniel A. Grabauskas, delivering what may prove a significant setback in the efforts of the Patrick administration to oust the leader of the chronically troubled transit system.

The open dispute on the eight-member board is now threatening to become a full-blown political liability for Governor Deval Patrick. A range of people - from Mayor Thomas M. Menino to a gubernatorial rival to legislative leaders - have jumped to the defense of Grabauskas, with some accusing Patrick of playing politics.

MBTA riders also have much at stake, given that they face a hefty fare increase and key decisions over how to address serious crash safety concerns and whether to go forward with costly expansion plans. Uncertainty at the top could make it difficult for the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority to carry out some of those long-term endeavors.

“During the period of time we have worked with the general manager we have found him to be responsive, responsible, innovative, and focused on improving customer service and safety,’’ wrote the four members of the MBTA’s board of directors, Willie J. Davis, Grace Shepard, Frank F. Chin, and Baron H. Martin.

The letter was addressed to Patrick’s transportation secretary, James A. Aloisi Jr., who chairs the board and has had a public falling out with Grabauskas, who made the board’s letter public yesterday.

One of the four letter-writers, Shepard, is relatively new to the board and was appointed by Patrick after the recommendation of the Metropolitan Area Planning Council. The other three were initially appointed by Republican governors and, in some instances, reappointed by Patrick.

Grabauskas, a Republican, is one of the last holdovers from Governor Mitt Romney’s administration and has survived, albeit at times uncomfortably, as a result of a contract that would be costly to buy out.

He is paid $255,000 this year under the contract, which has nine months remaining. If he were terminated, the state would have to pay him his salary and benefits for the remaining months of the contract, unless he is fired for a serious breach, such as gross negligence.

Menino said that Grabauskas has always been there when the city needed him.

“We need to support Grabauskas in any way possible, so we can upgrade the system,’’ said Menino. “I can go back in our files and get a whole list of things he’s done for us.’’

Earlier this week, three other MBTA board members wrote a letter highly critical of Grabauskas, citing two serious MBTA crashes within the past 15 months and saying they had lost confidence in his ability to manage the agency, one of the country’s largest bus and rail systems. On Wednesday, Patrick said he also had concerns about the competence and adequacy of MBTA management, though he stopped short of directly calling for the firing of Grabauskas.

Patrick’s office referred questions yesterday to Aloisi, who declined an interview request but issued a statement acknowledging the division on the board, which is scheduled to meet Thursday.

“This is not about the personal or the political,’’ the statement said. “It is about ensuring the safety and competent oversight of the MBTA on behalf of its riders and the general public.’’

Grabauskas said yesterday that he will serve out his contract and that the public dispute has been a distraction from the issues he should be focusing on.

“Several board members who have served a very long time and know me very well have reached a very different conclusion than the others,’’ he said.

The rift on the board would appear to set up a tie, though Aloisi’s voting status under the board’s rules is uncertain.

The MBTA’s attorney, William Mitchell, wrote in an e-mail sent through Grabauskas that the board’s regulations are silent as to whether the chairman votes only in a tiebreaker situation. In the past, it has depended on the type of motion under consideration, he wrote. Aloisi’s spokesman said the chairman always has a vote.

Patrick could also choose to appoint a ninth board member to fill a vacancy and break a tie, but that could prove politically tricky, since the board is set to be eliminated Nov. 1 as part of a statewide transportation overhaul.

The real decision will probably be over whether to fight Grabauskas or pay him the balance of his salary in exchange for making the issue go away.

Davis, who said he drafted the letter after communicating with the other three members who signed it, said the four would support buying Grabauskas out of his contract.

“I think its safe to say that that’s what we would recommend,’’ Davis said. “It certainly would avoid a fight, wouldn’t it? An unnecessary fight, I might add.’’

It’s unclear whether Patrick and Aloisi would endorse that, given the extremely difficult financial conditions facing the T and the state.

Legislative leaders have already sided with Grabauskas.

And yesterday, Senate minority leader Richard R. Tisei issued a statement accusing Patrick of exploiting the T crashes to seize control of an independent agency. Tisei was named campaign chairman this week for Republican gubernatorial candidate Charles D. Baker Jr.

Grabauskas worked as an aide to Tisei in the early 1990s.

“Obviously, the attacks on Dan are all being orchestrated in an attempt to place one of the governor’s political allies in a plum patronage position, just like he tried to do with Marian Walsh,’’ Tisei said in the statement.

An MBTA board member who is calling for Grabauskas’s ouster, Ferdinand Alvaro Jr., took exception to the mounting accusations that criticisms of Grabauskas are political.

Though Alvaro was appointed by Patrick, he is a Republican. Alvaro said the T has been beset by financial problems, diversity concerns, and a very poor report on one of the recent crashes from the National Transportation Safety Board.

“While one can certainly make an argument that Dan Grabauskas did not create this problem, I think one could also say that he has not solved the problem,’’ Alvaro said. “Because the problems have gotten worse, and, therefore, it is time in my opinion for new leadership.’’

Noah Bierman can be reached at