Johnson Named New OCTA Head

The Orange County Transportation Authority board of directors Monday morning unanimously appointed Darrell Johnson as successor CEO to the billion-dollar public agency, settling weeks of contention over the appointment and correcting a previous approval that had violated the state’s open meetings law.

But before Johnson got the nod, a group of county supervisors who have battled OCTA staff and other board members over a series of key decisions at the authority, questioned provisions of Johnson’s contract, including a severance package and pension benefits.

Ultimately, Johnson was allowed to keep both the severance package and pension provision, which has OCTA paying both the employee and employer contributions.

If the board fires Johnson, he would continue to collect six months of salary and health benefits or be compensated for the remaining months of his contract, whichever is less. Johnson's contract ends Sept. 1, 2015.

County Supervisors John Moorlach and Pat Bates, voted against the contract but voted for the appointment. They and the rest of the Board of Supervisors are directors on the OCTA board.

Johnson was first appointed CEO last month during a special board meeting, a move that was deemed a violation of the Ralph M. Brown Act, which prohibits considering pay for executives at special meetings. Bates had brought the violation to light.

The first appointment was sharply criticized by a bloc of county supervisors. They pointed out that the selection was done behind closed doors by an ad hoc committee mostly composed of board directors who stepped down soon after the decision.

And while the decision was seen by critics as an attempt by outgoing board directors to appoint Johnson before they left, their 10 successors also voted for Johnson.

Johnson was next in line under OCTA’s internal succession plan. The supervisors backed Johnson despite their concerns about transparency between staff and the board and about some agency policies, such as what some supervisors described as excessive spending on projects like the Anaheim Regional Transportation Intermodal Center.

Under the contract, Johnson will be paid $255,000 annually. He will take the helm when current CEO Will Kempton steps down Feb. 28.

Moorlach said he couldn’t support the severance package because of a sour experience supervisors had with former county CEO Tom Mauk, who resigned last July 6 in the wake of the sex crimes scandal involving a county executive, Carlos Bustamante.

Mauk wouldn’t leave without collecting his severance, a problem Moorlach indicated he didn’t want repeated at the transportation authority.

“We had a CEO who told us I’m sort of retired right now, and if you want to get rid of me, exercise my severance clause,” Moorlach said.

Director Frank Ury, a Mission Viejo city councilman, said that a severance package would give the next CEO more opportunity to speak candidly and be less fearful of political backlash, because he would have a financial parachute in case the board fires him for saying something directors dislike. Ury also noted that other public agencies provide severance packages.

“I would like a chief executive to be very comfortable getting in my face and telling me I’m wrong,” Ury said.

Supervisor Todd Spitzer also supported the severance benefit, saying that accepting the position is inherently risky because of the politicking of the board of directors, most of whom are elected officials.

Moorlach dismissed Ury’s arguments as hollow. “Everyone else does it is sort of a pretty weak argument for me. I couldn’t pull it off with my parents,” he said.

Bates and Supervisor Shawn Nelson raised concerns over paying both the employee and employer share of Johnson’s pension. Nelson said that some board directors had made commitments not to support those kinds of pension plans. Nonetheless, Nelson voted for the contract.

-- ADAM ELMAHREK

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