News

Rail exec's resignation prompts call for reform

Jeffrey Barker had overseen communications for California High-Speed Rail Authority for two years

The resignation Thursday of a California High-Speed Rail Authority executive, Jeffrey Barker, has led a Palo Alto watchdog group to renew its call for a "giant culture change" at the state rail agency.

Barker was the rail authority's deputy executive director in charge of communication, policy and public outreach. Appointed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2009, Barker said in his resignation letter to co-workers, quoted by the Sacramento Bee, that he was leaving "to pursue other endeavors," including writing and communications strategy.

Barker's departure comes one month after the embattled authority's public-relations firm, Ogilvy Public Relations Worldwide, quit. It had been hired in November 2009 under a $9 million, five-year contract, to turn the tides of criticism that had pounded the agency. However, the authority continued to come under fire, particularly from residents on the Peninsula who contest the plans and the process for constructing the $65 billion rail line between Los Angeles and San Francisco.

A representative from the Palo Alto grassroots group Californians Advocating Responsible Rail Design (CARRD), which aims to ensure public interests are upheld by the rail authority, said Saturday that transparency is missing from the state agency.

"You can fire your PR agency and your head of communications can leave, but in the end, someone is telling them what to do. There needs to be a giant culture change to fix the systemic transparency issues, and we don't know who, if anyone, at the authority is truly interested in that goal," Nadia Naik, co-founder of CARRD, stated.

A rail authority spokesperson, however, asserted that the agency is devoted to providing information to the public.

"The California High-Speed Rail Authority is committed to transparency and strives to ensure access to the project details and documents through various platforms including its website, webcasting, public meetings and more," Rachel Wall said in an email Saturday.

On Wednesday, CARRD had gone public with its then-unsuccessful attempts to get the authority to release information under the California Public Records Act request. Among the requests was a final report from the peer-review panel responsible for analyzing the authority's estimates of how many riders would use the rail line.

The initial request was made March 22. Despite a requirement that a decision on the request be made within 10 days, or a reason is provided that the records cannot be released, the authority failed to follow through on the request for a full three months, Naik said.

In the Wednesday letter to the rail-authority's board, CARRD co-founder Elizabeth Alexis detailed the communications between CARRD and the rail authority. In late April, Barker told CARRD that the peer-review committee had not submitted documentation of its January through March deliberations to the authority. Then in mid-May, he said that the requested information would be available at the end of the following week. In early June, he again said that documents would be forthcoming. And in mid-July, he said that there were no documents, only drafts, which could not be released, Alexis wrote. In addition, she said, Barker commented that CARRD just wanted to make the rail authority look bad on CARRD's website.

On Thursday, the day after CARRD's letter to the board and the same day that Barker announced his resignation, the authority released the report from the five-member peer review committee. The report covers findings and recommendations from the January through March period. In it, the panel expresses "significant concerns" about the model the agency's consultant used to estimate future ridership and urges the authority to make the forecasts more conservative, "especially for financial (investment and risk) analysis."

Wall, of the rail authority, said that the agency's release of the report this week came "shortly after" the peer-review committee had provided it.

Comments

 +   Like this comment
Posted by Old Ben
a resident of Shoreline West
on Aug 1, 2011 at 8:32 am

It's time to close this scam down. You can't tell the ship is sinking if all the rats stay on board.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Spaghetti Freddie
a resident of Old Mountain View
on Aug 1, 2011 at 9:35 am

Good job CARRD. I mean, what a coincidence that the report was suddenly available. There should be criminal penalties for Barker's ongoing refusal to produce public records.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Hardin
a resident of Cuesta Park
on Aug 1, 2011 at 12:28 pm

When a public relations firm, fluent in being the first line of defense against a doubtful and even hostile public, decides to walk away from a 9 million dollar contract, along with the head of public relations, the building must really be on fire.

The smart ones, grab the life jackets when there are still life jackets available.

California needs to close this down, and restart it once we have a state's financial house in order.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Seer Clearly
a resident of Blossom Valley
on Aug 1, 2011 at 2:49 pm

None of this brouhaha has anything to do with whether HSR is the right thing for California or not. It has to do with how well it's managed, and how well it's being sold to the public. Yes, sold is the right word, since those of you who have every worked on a corporate project that creates a lot of change know that any large change has to be sold to those involved, since otherwise they will simply resist. So if there is a fault with HSRA, it is that they haven't been selling the project enough. The successful projects around the world for HSR have all been sold to the public with arguments that turned out to be true (with the exception of China, whose PR effort is simply "just because.") Every country that has HSR has enjoyed regional economic benefits from it, not just to businesses but in reduced transportation costs from savings to air and road infrastructure. It's not hard to sell, but someone has to confront the naysayers with fact-based arguments that have been conspicuously absent in this "debate." Otherwise, the negative always wins.

Just look at the arguments on here, which mostly center around it being "too expensive." Yet, in Europe, the analyses for the projects were centered around the economic costs from NOT implementing HSR. Perhaps it was because each country in Western Europe ended up competing with its neighbors, eager not to be the loser in a friendly economic war that would have businesses migrating to those countries with lower transportation costs. Yet, those arguments apply equally well here in California, but nobody's arguing them. This is the failure of the HSRA. I know, people say "well, our distances are longer" but when you compare them to those in China, the argument falls flat. They also say that "our air and raod infrastructure can be built out to handle the load" yet it has not, and that argument ignores the huge savings of not having to do so. Finally, all this is predicated on the assumption that fuel costs won't skyrocket, a very very bad assumption indeed, with easy oil running out and Asia sucking the remainder up.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Hardin
a resident of Cuesta Park
on Aug 1, 2011 at 3:21 pm

Or...

Mr. Barker and Ogilvy Public Relations are privy to the inside information we don't know about (yet), and realize there's no amount of lipstick that's going to make this pig pretty.

I'm not challenging that mass transit and rail are bad ideas, just that THIS variant of it is starting out with all the red flags of going down in flames.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Hardin
a resident of Cuesta Park
on Aug 1, 2011 at 3:37 pm

Incidentally Seer, those that have experience with running large construction projects know that having a clear scope of work up front, with a minimal amount of large design changes, establishing relationships and open communication channels to stakeholders, and and securing financing to match the expected estimate cost of the project (including contingency), are prerequisites for having a project be completed on time, on budget, and to agreed to standards of quality.

The HSR has failed miserably on every score, with no clear scope of the project, still massive changes to fundamentals like routing and configuration of the rail lines, a serious lack of communication to the public and state officials, and no where near the secured funding to complete the project, even the barest skeleton of it.

And yet they want to proceed with construction starting in the middle of no where.

For a project of this size, scope and complexity, playing with as many of the state's dollars as this one does, you want to have the A-List team running this, not the minor leagues.

As Google emphasizes to their employees, "Fail Fast", so that you can move on to other attempts that have a better chance of success.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Christine
a resident of another community
on Aug 3, 2011 at 9:05 am

Big government without oversight can become corrupt as we have seen over and over again.

It's not only HSR but also the California Coastal Commission who just last week was told to stop violating the US constitution by taking private property without compensation.

The problem is that only the very wealthy can afford to sue big government so agencies like the HSR and Coastal Commission know the people are mostly going to ignore their illegal behavior.


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