Bul­let-train job still un­filled

High-speed rail chief re­mains on pay­roll two months af­ter the date he was set to exit.

Los Angeles Times - - CALIFORNIA - By Ralph Vartabe­dian

Cal­i­for­nia bul­let train chief ex­ec­u­tive Jeff Mo­rales an­nounced in April that he would be leav­ing June 2, af­ter five years run­ning the na­tion’s largest in­fra­struc­ture project.

But in the four months since, the high-speed rail board has not taken any pub­lic ac­tion to re­place him. In fact, Mo­rales is still on the state pay­roll, and of­fi­cials say he will be at the author­ity at least through Tues­day.

There were ru­mors as far back as Novem­ber, de­nied by the author­ity at the time, that Mo­rales would be mak­ing an exit — sug­gest­ing there was plenty of time to pre­pare.

When asked this week about what was be­ing done to re­place Mo­rales, long­time rail project chair­man Dan Richard said the author­ity was in the process of hir­ing an ex­ec­u­tive re­cruit­ment firm — but that has taken time be­cause of state pro­cure­ment reg­u­la­tions. In ad­di­tion, he said, the rail board has been at­tempt­ing to “net­work” to find can­di­dates.

“A search firm is al­most in place,” Richard said, adding that the rail board “did not feel a sense of ur­gency be­cause the ship is in good shape.” He said the process of re­plac­ing Mo­rales likely would con­tinue for a few months.

Mo­rales stayed on past his an­nounced exit date, Richard said, to as­sist with the tran­si­tion, in­clud­ing work­ing on en­vi­ron­men­tal doc­u­ments.

It ap­pears that the rail author­ity has en­coun­tered more dif­fi­culty than it ex­pected in find­ing a re­place­ment for Mo­rales, ac­cord­ing to of­fi­cials close to the project who spoke on con­di­tion of anonymity when dis­cussing per­son­nel mat­ters.

A sum­mer board meet­ing was can­celed, and mem­bers who met in an ear­lier closed ses­sion to con­sider a re­place­ment did not take any ac­tion.

“They seemed near to hav­ing a re­place­ment a cou­ple times, and then noth­ing hap­pened,” one of­fi­cial said.

Ac­cord­ing to civil en­gi­neer­ing ex­perts, part of the prob­lem in re­cruit­ing a top­notch man­ager might be that Gov. Jerry Brown will be leav­ing of­fice in about 16 months. The next gover­nor could want his own per­son in the job, or even re­struc­ture the trou­bled project.

Tom Fel­lenz, the chief coun­sel of the rail author­ity, took over the role of act­ing chief ex­ec­u­tive and has been run­ning the project with the help of sev­eral other se­nior rail of­fi­cials. Richard said he has been im­pressed with how that team is per­form­ing.

Mo­rales was feted at a go­ing-away party at a Sacra­mento restau­rant in June — when most of the staff had ex­pected him to leave.

One ex­ec­u­tive at the author­ity, who re­quested anonymity when dis­cussing state mat­ters, said no one has been able to fig­ure out what Mo­rales has been do­ing, although de­ci­sions by the new man­age­ment team are be­ing made more promptly since he stepped down.

“There is more ac­tual con­trol of the project now,” the of­fi­cial said.

Mo­rales’ five-year ten­ure at the rail author­ity pro­duced mixed re­sults.

The project sur­vived le­gal and po­lit­i­cal chal­lenges. It awarded three key con­struc­tion con­tracts and started build­ing the first seg­ment in Fresno — even though Mo­rales had to deal with in­ad­e­quate fund­ing and deep op­po­si­tion by Cen­tral Val­ley landown­ers.

On the other hand, the bul­let train is about seven years be­hind sched­ule and faces es­ti­mates of higher costs. Staff morale has sagged at the agency, based on in­ter­nal em­ployee sur­veys. And of­fi­cials close to the project said some board mem­bers had lost con­fi­dence in Mo­rales’ lead­er­ship.

Mo­rales did not cite a rea­son for step­ping down from the job, which paid nearly $400,000 a year.

Rich Pedroncelli As­so­ci­ated Press

JEFF MO­RALES, the state bul­let train chief ex­ec­u­tive, an­nounced his de­par­ture in April but has stayed past his planned June 2 exit to help with the tran­si­tion.

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