North County Transit District comes clean about leadership after costly court battle

Welcome to the Escondido Transit Center, run by NCTD./The Grapevine

The North County Transit District has turned over a leadership assessment summary after more than a year of legal back-and-forth between inewsource and the public agency, at a cost to both organizations of more than a quarter-million dollars in combined legal fees.

A San Diego public transportation agency spent more than $100,000 to fight a public records act request, eventually producing a partial summary of a leadership competency assessment.

The study, performed by the UC San Diego Rady School of Management under a $31,000 contract, detailed the strengths and weaknesses of NCTD’s 12 senior managers in more than a dozen categories including finance, risk management, strategy and integrity.

The San Diego Superior Court and state Court of Appeal found that releasing individual results — manager by manager — would breach employee privacy, but the appellate court ruled NCTD had to release one page of the study that is intended  to summarize all the results in a color-coded chart.

“The Rady documents,” the court wrote, “… shed light on the District’s ability to perform its primary duty: developing and operating mass transit systems in San Diego County.”

inewsource requested the study after chronicling problems at the public transportation agency — from security to finance — for more than a year. Several former NCTD employees told inewsource the district’s top managers were unqualified for their jobs, which they said led to constant turnover.

NCTD runs the county’s COASTER, BREEZE, SPRINTER and LIFT transit services, and uses San Diego County’s tax base to support its operations. In the past two years, inewsource has published stories detailing the district’s holes in securitymisallocation of fundingquestionable contractinghigh employee turnoverlawsuits, audits and peer criticism.

Clark Jordan is the assistant dean of executive development at the Rady School of Management. He said the program measures managers in several key competencies, as well as their business acumen.

Those going through the program, including top-level managers or promising middle-level ones, are given a series of assessments, including a written test and live simulations, to test their competencies.

The results, he said, don’t test their knowledge or skills in specific tasks. For example, a manager at Boeing might score well on operations and execution.

“You couldn’t look at that and say, ‘Yeah, this person really knows how to assemble aircraft engines,’” he said. “We don’t get that specific.”

The results are adjusted so that they can be compared to managers at a Fortune 500 company. Individual results are then broken down into three categories: green (strength), yellow (proficient), and red (developmental opportunity).

Yellow, Clark warned, can be a misleading color.

“Yellow means they’re fully competent in that job,” he said. “It’s not like a traffic light where yellow is cautionary.”

Graphic shows how NCTD managers scored in multiple competencies, ranked from green (strength), yellow (proficient) and red (developmental opportunity). No one row is indicative of a single individual. Source: North County Transit District

Graphic shows how NCTD managers scored in multiple competencies, ranked from green (strength), yellow (proficient) and red (developmental opportunity). No one row is indicative of a single individual. Source: North County Transit District

Managers at NCTD did best on “resiliency and adaptability” and ”integrity and authenticity,” both with an average of 3.1 on the 5-point scale. Four of the managers had “resiliency and adaptability” scored as a strength, tied for the best result in any of the categories.

No one row of the summary chart shows the results of any one individual going through the program. The results, Clark said, give “the general manager or the president an outline of the competencies for their people.”

The rest of the study results include detailed breakdowns of each manager’s strengths and weaknesses in all the measured competencies.

The worst scores for NCTD managers came in “finance” with a 2.7 and “operations” with a 2.6. Finance was marked as a development opportunity for eight of the managers, and a strength for only one. No respondents had operations marked as a strength, two were proficient and it was marked as a developmental opportunity for the remaining 10.

In a written statement accompanying the summary’s release in September, NCTD said operations “can define different sets of activities in the minds of different individuals and companies.” For this assessment, NCTD said the category focused on manufacturing “and or heavy project based companies.”

Clark said operations can include everything from the day-to-day running of a business, to manufacturing or providing services.

Overall, NCTD’s top managers scored a 2.9. In its statement, the transit district said 66 percent of other managers who have taken this assessment scored between 2.5 and 3.5.

Those scores include measurements for categories that may be outside the usual work requirements for some of the managers. That can make it difficult to draw conclusions about the competency of key individuals at NCTD without a full report.

“If someone is in HR for instance, they might have a red area in finance,” Clark said. “Well that’s fine, their job doesn’t include finance.”

You're either on the bus or off the bus when it comes to NCTD leadership.

You’re either on the bus or off the bus when it comes to NCTD leadership.

Appeal led to summary’s release

Several former NCTD employees have said recent problems at the agency are attributable to an unqualified staff of senior managers. That prompted inewsourceto ask for the study’s results through a California Public Records Act request last year.

NCTD denied the request, citing a government exemption in state law that protects against the release of “personnel, medical, or similar files” that relate to personal privacy.

A San Diego Superior Court judge sided with the public agency, but inewsourceappealed to a higher court, which decided the summary page posed no “danger of embarrassment or pain to individual employees” because it included no names or positions.

Noting that the assessment was performed with public funds, the appellate opinion, written by Justice Gilbert Nares, said the public “has an interest in knowing what was purchased with those funds, whether the Program was worth what the District spent, and whether the Program provided utility to the District.

“The public also has an interest in knowing how the District identifies professional development opportunities and evaluates its senior staff, which were in part purposes of the Program. The Rady documents would plainly shed light on the District’s activities in these ways.”

Justice James McIntyre, part of the three-judge appellate panel that considered the case, said he thought releasing the documents would be of some benefit to the public.

“If you need improvement in this many categories,” he said, looking at the study’s results, “you must not be a top rate or even a medium rate organization.”

And if you disagree, he suggested, “I don’t know what planet you’re on.”

Still at issue are attorneys fees. Superior Court Judge Joan Lewis tentatively ruled that NCTD should compensate inewsource attorney Guylyn Cummins $138,500 in fees. After arguments in court, the judge took the matter under submission and has not made a final ruling.

(By agreement, The Grapevine publishes investigative, in-depth data-driven journalism from independent non-profit inewsource based at San Diego State University’s School of Journalism and Media Studies. For more from inewsource, visit