Four senior officials, including both deputy directors, have left the Baltimore Department of Transportation in the past four months, and a fifth left this week — an exodus of top staff members that is raising concern on the City Council about the agency’s leadership.
At least one senior manager who quit attributed his departure directly to DOT director Michelle Pourciau’s workplace demeanor.
In September, the City Council delayed the confirmation of Pourciau, Mayor Catherine Pugh’s nominee, due to communication breakdowns between the department and some council offices.
The recent senior staff departures have caused new concerns about Pourciau, council members said.
City Councilman Ryan Dorsey said turnover has come at a time when the department “has been acting regressively” on transportation issues. Dorsey, an advocate of making Baltimore a better place to walk or bike as well as drive, has criticized the department’s handling of the Potomac Street bicycle lane fight, among other issues.
“This exodus, and the philosophy the department has demonstrated, give reason for concern as to whether we’ll now be able to fill those vacancies with top talent,” Dorsey said.
The department, which has a $207 million budget and more than 1,200 employees, is responsible for the planning, designing, building and maintenance of thousands of miles of city roads, highways, sidewalks, alleys, street lights and traffic signals, among other duties.
The Baltimore City Department of Transportation’s former bike share coordinator, who oversaw the city’s beleaguered $2.36 million system of bike rentals, was hired by Bewegen, the program’s Canadian vendor, after departing his role at the city in October, a company spokesman said.
Pourciau, who previously headed the District of Columbia Department of Transportation, dismissed the departures as typical of any top-level leadership change at a major government agency.
“There’s been kind of a turnover in leadership here at all levels,” Pourciau said. “I don’t feel there’s anything that is not typical of new leadership ... trying to figure out new ways to improve upon things that have been a problem.
“I don’t see anything to be concerned about,” she said.
Every other senior manager has either quit or been reassigned.
Two weeks ago, Transit Bureau Chief Veronica McBeth became the latest to submit her resignation. She oversaw the Charm City Circulator, Harbor Connector, Baltimore Bike Share, ride share programs, and transit and marine services.
“I fear that DOT is on the brink of losing its hardworking, dedicated staff,” he wrote.
Fleming could not be reached for comment, but in the letter, obtained by The Baltimore Sun, he alleged that the director told him twice “that I have no discernible skills or professional expertise and I’m not able to adequately speak about a subject.”
One of the reprimands happened in front of an elected official and other people from outside the agency, Fleming wrote. Colleagues also were interrupted during meetings and had their credentials questioned, he said in the letter.
“A number of times co-workers have tried to provide context or background on an issue and they have been cut off,” he said. “Then when the information that was to be shared comes to light from another source, the Director asked why this wasn’t shared with her previously, as if it was a way to set her up to look bad.
“When you repeatedly stop employees from sharing information with you, after a while they stop trying,” he added. “I believe this is what’s happening now.”
Pourciau confirmed that she’d seen Fleming’s letter and acknowledged that she’d had “misunderstandings” with staff members. Some employees were serving in roles for which they didn’t have the proper qualifications, she said.
“Maybe I pointed that out,” she said. “I don’t know.”
Some staffers experienced what Pourciau called “re-entry shock” when she arrived as director.
“There’s been a lot of criticism,” she said. “My days here have not been without huge challenges. I’ve found that sometimes people’s jobs, or what I thought is their job, may not have been their job. The learning curve was very difficult, I must say. … I found that the organization was not one where collaboration was the order of the day.”
Pugh said she wasn’t specifically aware of Fleming’s criticisms, but said she had directed Pourciau to be “somewhat of a disrupter — getting transportation working for our citizens.”
“I instructed our director to bring about the changes that will meet the needs of the communities and neighborhoods in the city,” she said.
As Fleming warned, the exodus continued.
Hollins’ exit in October as IT chief on Oct. 6 created a vacancy atop a division critical to an agency that fields a wide range of constituent service requests. Hollins was paid $134,400. She could not be reached for comment.
Scott, the deputy director of operations, had been overseeing half of the department’s divisions after Traffic Bureau Chief Richard Hooper retired in March.
Scott was reassigned to help run Pugh’s new Violence Reduction Initiative, an interagency effort to quell spiking homicides and other violent crime. His $142,700 deputy director’s salary, however, remains on the Department of Transportation’s payroll.
“We all work for the mayor; I don’t think DOT’s going to throw a fit if I’m being paid by them and working for the Police Department,” Scott said.
Upon his re-assignment, Scott’s duties were reassigned to the new senior adviser, Murphy.
Less than a month later, Deputy Director for Administration Lindsay Wines left. Wines was paid $129,800 to oversee the human resources, payroll, contract administration and civil rights divisions. Laetitia Griffin was promoted to the job of acting chief of administration upon Wines’ exit, the department said.
Wines could not be reached for comment. She and Hollins took jobs at the Mayor’s Office of Information Technology.
Pourciau said she is drafting a new organization chart, restructuring the agency from a focus on maintenance to a focus on asset management and performance.
Two of her senior staff replacements included contacts from her prior jobs in the private sector and as public official in Washington.
Amah Binde, who was hired Aug. 21 as chief project officer, previously worked with Pourciau at McKissack & McKissack, an architecture and engineering firm where Pourciau served as vice president of transportation.
Muhummad Khalid, who was named chief engineer on Sept. 18, was a longtime colleague of Pourciau, most recently at the D.C. Department of Transportation.
“He never reported directly to me, but we started working in 1985 for D.C. government with DPW,” Pourciau said. “We both spent a long career there together.”
Binde is paid $143,000 and Khalid makes $160,000.
The department also has hired Kent Krabbe as operations manager for special events, a new $107,100 position created to “develop policy regarding the management and funding of special events,” Murphy said.
Pourciau’s new chief of staff, Eboni Wimbush, who makes, $138,000, started Jan. 22.