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.

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Like this comment
Posted by John
a resident of Fairmeadow
on Jul 30, 2011 at 5:50 pm

Now that the HSR is dying, can we spend the money to fix caltrain?
Electrify and eliminate grade crossings?

But I have a feeling that the "employees" of HSR will continue to draw paychecks untill the money runs out.

What a boondoggle, your PR firm even quits!

Like this comment
Posted by Martin Engel
a resident of Menlo Park
on Jul 30, 2011 at 6:06 pm

One damn thing after another! Some of us have said that the rail authority is an authoritarian autocracy intent on -- as Rod Diridon put it -- "over-ride us."

Some of us have been saying this since well before the bond issue ballot in 2008, when Palo Alto city council voted unanimously to support the bond issue. Palo Alto apparently hasn't moved very far from that original position.

Furthermore, local organizations, like the PCC and it's kitchen cabinet, CARRD, promoted the use of Context Sensitive Solutions as a negotiating tool with the rail authority based on the presumption that the rail authority was interested in negotiating a solution acceptable to Palo Alto and the rest of us. Of course, the rail authority wasn't then, and they are not now. Some of us advised that negotiating was a foolish strategy. So, how did CSS work out?

While CARRD continues to perform masterful work in information extraction and disclosure, thereby countering the persistent falsehoods emanating from the rail authority, the Peninsula-wide push continues to seek accommodation and further negotiation and compromises with an agency that has no such intentions.

Calling the Peninsula groups NIMBYs is incorrect. There is a willingness, even a desire, for high-speed rail on the Caltrain corridor (i.e. their back yard), of course only on their terms. We see such inclinations in many of our neighboring towns, as well as in ours.

It is safe to say that there is not yet an outright, absolute rejection of high-speed rail on the Caltrain corridor or in California, even though the evidence is overwhelming to support such a position. It is considered too radical. I think not. To the contrary. A groundswell of public uprising against this pointless project and its stunning costs to all taxpayers is highly appropriate and the American way for voicing our outrage against our government.

What's my point here? At some point, perhaps when the backhoes show up on the corridor and construction notices show up in our mailboxes, everyone on the Peninsula will come to the startling discovery that the rail authority has been faithful to a single agenda; that is, to build a four track elevated viaduct. Not this year. Probably, not in the next five years.

But, unless the CHSRA is terminated and the project shut down, that Caltrain corridor agenda remains on the table. And if and when further funding materializes from Washington -- unlikely now but not impossible in 2012 -- we will see notions like the S.E.G. two track "phased implementation" process quickly accelerated to a full elevated four track build-out on the corridor.

If we all had the determination, we could and should stop this project in its tracks. Now.

So, Friends of Caltrain, is this the desired end-state, with electrified Caltrain sustained by its current management, leading to HSR as the next phase on two tracks, then eventually four? Because that is exactly what is being enabled by you, even as we speak.

Like this comment
Posted by pat
a resident of Midtown
on Jul 30, 2011 at 6:08 pm

Ogilvy quit so they wouldn’t get fired: “… the PR firm charged the state thousands of dollars for simple tasks such as a few hours of reading news articles. [Kopp] also accused them of over-billing the authority several hours for brief meetings.”Web Link

Ditto Jefferey Barker.

Like this comment
Posted by morris brown
a resident of Menlo Park
on Jul 30, 2011 at 7:09 pm

Jeff Barker's leaving is most likely unrelated to the unwarranted delay in releasing the Peer Group report on the Ridership study.

Baker came to the Authority from Schwarzenegger's inner circle. He is identified with the Republican party. Ogilvy is a PR firm that mostly supports Republican candidates and issues.

We now have a democratic Governor and these move should be taken as the Governor wanting to put his imprint on the Authority and the project.

Like this comment
Posted by ODB
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Jul 31, 2011 at 1:59 am

We haven't seen the presumptive Ogilvy shill who used to frequent this board in quite a while. I forget his name.

Like this comment
Posted by Jay Tulock
a resident of another community
on Jul 31, 2011 at 12:07 pm

Martin, sir, you could not be more correct in your rant above.

The only answer is for each group up and down the state, San Diego to San Francisco, fighting the Authority to stop fighting and unite with one goal: a reverse Prop. 1A initiative. We are all fighting the corrupt, criminal Authority, no matter what our position on high speed rail.

Jay Tulock, Vacaville

P.S. The scary people are the True Believers, who are so bent on high speed rail they criticize everyone who criticizes the sacred Authority. You see one of them, get out the wooden stake!

Like this comment
Posted by Wilson
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 31, 2011 at 12:52 pm

> The scary people are the True Believers, who are so bent on high
> speed rail they criticize everyone who criticizes the sacred
> Authority.

It's OK to criticize your critics. The scary part starts when people are demonized. This is a tool of the "Left" (all too frequently), but most hardware stores will sell "tar and feathers" to anyone with cash-in-hand.

Like this comment
Posted by Mike Cobb, former Mayor
a resident of Greendell/Walnut Grove
on Aug 1, 2011 at 10:22 am

Martin Engel is, as he has been all along, absolutely correct.

I would like to point out that the reported resignation with the implication that this is an opportunity to somehow upgrade the HSR Authority misses the point. So much time and attention has been devoted to making the Authority better that we have lost sight of the basic fact that, even if the Authority were competent, honest, expert, and responsive to the community (none of which are the case), that would not make the proposed HSR project worthy of our support. The ridership is dramatically wrong and overstated, and costs would place a terrible burden on our State and local communities ... at the expense of education and other priority services that are already suffering for lack of sufficient funding. Prop 1A which started this damaging train down the tracks was dishonest about
the ridership and cost, but does include one provision which should be the final nail in
the HSR coffin ... and that is the mandate that it be self sustaining.

We don't need management changes, we need to recognize the facts already on the table:
the ridership isn't there, we can't afford it, and it won't be self-sustaining. The Legislature should do the responsible thing and end it now before more precious financial resources
are wasted.

Like this comment
Posted by jardins
a resident of Midtown
on Aug 1, 2011 at 3:35 pm

I'm sick of all the muddle and dispute surrounding the HSR project, while precious funds are being spent even as the endless discussions meander on.

Why doesn't the government uses the HSR money to subsidize electric cars instead?? And more solar power harvesting to fuel them?

Like this comment
Posted by beauty
a resident of Midtown
on Aug 1, 2011 at 3:40 pm

that is the beauty of our democracy,hooray,goes on forever.

Like this comment
Posted by Hugh Jardonn
a resident of Los Altos
on Aug 1, 2011 at 5:57 pm

Martin Engel is correct in his post above, this project is so out of control that it just needs to be terminated. There's no way CHSRA will bring it in for $42 billion and ticket prices will be north of $200 a head.

Good job of CARRD to embarrass CHSRA into producing those documents.

Like this comment
Posted by Rick R
a resident of Menlo Park
on Aug 2, 2011 at 11:10 am

Once again, Martin Engel has zeroed in on the key issue. And the other writer, who commented on the ridership numbers in particular, has the key tool. There is no way this can be self sustaining and the HSRA should be killed. It does not matter what route is selected - it is a boondoggle whereever you put it.

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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