As Baltimore’s Bike Share system grappled with persistent problems last fall, the employee supervising the program for the Department of Transportation was emailing the bicycle contractor about a different matter: his plan to join the company.
“In anticipation of the contract, I am confirming my earliest start date as November 27th, 2017,” Jay Decker, the city’s bike share coordinator, wrote to Alain Ayotte, CEO of the Canadian firm Bewegen Technologies, on Sept. 11. “This will allow me to wrap up things in Baltimore and have a few weeks off for moving and setting up my new work space.”
Decker emailed Ayotte again less than an hour later to inform him that city officials had decided to shut down the troubled program to allow time to fix it.
The system had been fielding complaints for months — about bike stations routinely having few or no bikes, bikes not working, and the mobile app giving wrong information — when Bewegen hired Decker, according to emails obtained by The Baltimore Sun under a Maryland Public Information Act request. The company sent Decker an employment contract and reservations for a flight to Montreal and a hotel there, the emails show.
City officials blamed the bike shortages on vandalism and theft, and said Bewegen and Corps Logistics, the Westport-based bicycle maintenance subcontractor, worked to address the other issues.
Decker came to Baltimore from Kansas as a contract employee to launch the bike share program in November 2016. He worked for the Transportation Department for just under a year.
Ethics watchdogs say the timing of his hire by the contractor he had been supervising for the city is cause for concern.
“It’s going to raise a lot of questions about whether he was representing Baltimore’s interests, his own or the bike company’s,” said Damon Effingham, acting director of Common Cause Maryland.
University of Baltimore law professor Robert Rubinson specializes in professional ethics.
“The fact that he was considering employment with a city vendor while still employed by the city — the bottom line is whether that compromised the city’s ability to work with the vendor,” Rubinson said.
Transportation officials say they are looking into it. Mayor Catherine E. Pugh, asked by The Sun, said she was unaware that Decker had taken a job with the contractor he was supervising.
“We would hope that he did it with integrity,” the mayor said.
Decker declined to comment and referred questions to Ayotte.
Ayotte said Decker already had told him he was interviewing for other jobs to leave the city when Ayotte offered him the job of Bewegen’s director of field operations. Ayotte said his company gained no advantage or benefit in its relationship with the city while it was discussing the offer with Decker.
“Everybody has their own perception,” he said. “I respect that. We did it in good faith. Jay informed us he was leaving and was conducting interviews for other jobs. He was leaving, and we offered.”
Baltimore’s $2.36 million Bike Share program launched in October 2016 with 200 bicycles at 20 stations. Users could rent a bicycle for $2 for 45 minutes or purchase a $15 monthly pass in a program aimed at reducing traffic and pollution and promoting health. It was modeled after successful programs in Philadelphia, New York, Washington and elsewhere.
Officials planned to expand to 500 bicycles and 50 stations by last spring — but that never happened. Vandalism and thefts reduced the numbers of bicycles available, and an ensuing maintenance backlog left more bicycles awaiting repairs than out on the street. As customer complaints grew, the city shut the program down from Sept. 17 to Oct. 15.
The program relaunched with about half the promised 50 bicycles and continued problems with the mobile app incorrectly displaying the number of bikes at each station.
The problems didn’t dampen Decker’s job prospects with Bewegen. He left the city for the company one day before the program’s one-year anniversary, which officials had been hoping to celebrate with an event that never materialized. At Decker’s request, Ayotte wrote a contract committing to a one-year term of employment.
“I have no plan of letting you go,” Ayotte emailed him.
Decker emailed the signed contract back to Ayotte on Oct. 5.
“Welcome in the Bewegen family ! [sic],” Ayotte responded. “Lets talk tomorrow about communication. I want to talk to Veronica eventually.”
He was referring to Decker’s then-boss, city transit bureau chief Veronica McBeth.
Ayotte said McBeth wasn’t told about Decker’s Bewegen job until after he was hired. Ayotte said Decker wanted to deliver the news himself.
McBeth left the Transportation Department last month. She did not respond to a request for comment.
Bewegen emailed to Decker at his city email address a reimbursement policy, a non-disclosure agreement and a non-competition agreement.
City transportation officials, asked about the possibility of a conflict of interest, responded initially that Decker, as a contract employee, wasn’t subject to the city’s ethics code.
Ethics Board Executive Director Avery Aisenstark corrected them: Contract workers, unlike independent contractors, are considered public servants and required to “abide by ... all applicable codes of ethics.”
Post-employment restrictions prohibit city employees from representing parties other than the city in matters in which “the former public servant significantly participated in the same matter as a public servant.”
But Aisenstark concluded that the city lacked enough information to determine whether Decker was still involved in Baltimore’s Bike Share program as a Bewegen employee.
Bewegen has confirmed that Decker participated in Baltimore Bike Share email chains and logistics calls after joining the company.
“Maybe he was on the call once, I don’t know,” Ayotte said. “Maybe for a quick question. That’s not his role. We made it very clear.”
Transportation Director Michelle Pourciau sent Ayotte a letter on Jan. 8 asking whether Decker was assigned to the company’s Baltimore program.
“Our concern arises from the possibility that Mr. Decker may be working on the Department’s Bike Share System,” Pourciau wrote. “We would like to know if Mr. Decker’s employment with Bewegen Technologies includes working on the aforementioned contract, which would be in violation of Baltimore City Code.”
She added: “This letter requests immediate corrective measures if Mr. Decker is working on the contract stated above or, if you believe you are not in violation, an immediate explanation as to why.”
The letter gave Bewegen five days to respond or face possible consequences, including having the matter forwarded to the Baltimore City Ethics Board. Any violation could include a termination of the contract, a $1,000-per-day civil penalty or prohibition from future contracts with the city, Pourciau wrote.
On Jan. 17, Ayotte responded that Decker was hired to support Corps Logistics in managing future bike share rollouts in the Pioneer Valley of Massachusetts; Raleigh, N.C.; and Columbia, S.C.
“We are hereby confirming that Mr. Decker is not appointed to manage, oversee, or assist in any function for the Baltimore Bike Share program,” Ayotte wrote.
The Transportation Department provided copies of both letters in response to questions from The Sun.
Neither letter addressed whether Decker’s city position allowed him to get the Bewegen job, which would be governed by another part of city ethics code that prohibits any city employee from using “the prestige of his or her office or position for his or her own private gain.”
Nor did either letter address Bewegen’s confirmation that Decker participated in the email chains and logistics calls after joining the company.
Effingham, of Common Cause, opined that Decker’s contacts at the Transportation Department might be valuable to Bewegen, as those relationships could be used to benefit the company.
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Even if they’re not, he said, any perception of impropriety “unfortunately underscores something a lot of people feel: that the government isn’t working for them.”