November 19, 2009, 7:00PMTriMet's operations director, who received a $15,000 retention incentive in January for staying on the job, is one of two finalists to head the light-rail transit agency for the Phoenix area.
Stephen R. Banta, 51, is a candidate to head Phoenix's Metro transit agency, which recently added a 20-mile, $1.4 billion light-rail line and hopes to add another 37 miles of rail or bus rapid transit.
Banta started at TriMet in May 2007. In January, he was paid a $15,000 retention incentive in addition to his $185,283 salary. In March, TriMet General Manager Fred Hansen said the incentive was intended as "a golden handcuff" for Banta, who he said was often approached by other employers.
Two months ago, Banta also proposed a significant management restructuring within his division that he described in a Sept. 30 memo to his managers as "an opportunity to start anew."
"I want to blow up the ship," he wrote, "not just turn it."
Hansen said in a statement Thursday that Banta's "tremendous" amount of operations expertise has been an asset to TriMet, but the agency approves of Banta vying for the high-level Arizona job.
"This type of opportunity does not come around often, and we know that Steve was approached on this and not actively seeking it," Hansen said. "If he is selected for the position, we would miss him, but support him pursing this opportunity."
In light of TriMet budget cuts, 2009 wages are frozen for nonunion employees. But TriMet spokeswoman Mary Fetsch said the retention bonus is built into Banta's contract and isn't subject to the wage freeze. Until he's offered a job, she said, the agency "cannot speculate on whether the payment will be made" for 2009.
No formal process has begun on the management restructuring, Fetsch said, adding that TriMet is "holding off on the process at this time."
Hillary Foose, spokeswoman for Phoenix's Metro, said the agency's board interviewed Banta and a second candidate, transit veteran Deborah Wathen Finn, in closed session Wednesday. The board has a regular meeting scheduled for Dec. 9 and may make a hiring decision then, Foose said. No decision is expected this week.
Banta was traveling and could not be reached for comment Thursday. Before coming to TriMet, he was chief operations officer for the Port Authority of Allegheny County in Pittsburgh, Pa.
After four years in the Navy, Banta began his transit career in 1986 repairing railcars for San Diego Trolley, moving into operations management in 1989. He has also worked for transit agencies in Washington, D.C., Los Angeles and Dallas.
-- Scott Learn