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The articles from Inside Politics With Steve Harrison appear first in his weekly newsletter, which takes a deeper look at local politics, including the latest news on the Charlotte City Council, what's happening with Mecklenburg County's Board of Commissioners, the North Carolina General Assembly and much more.

Will the city whitewash CATS investigation?

Leigh Altman sits at a dais
Steve Harrison
Mecklenburg Commissioner Leigh Altman (far left) asked for an outside investigation into a May 21, 2022, Lynx Blue Line train derailment.

The following article appeared first in WFAE Reporter Steve Harrison's Inside Politics newsletter. To get the news in your inbox first, sign up for our newsletters here.

The Metropolitan Transit Commission last week voted unanimously to launch an outside investigation into the May 2022 derailment of a Lynx Blue Line train — as well the lack of transparency from Charlotte Area Transit System officials after the accident.

Mecklenburg Commissioner and MTC member Leigh Altman pushed for the investigation. Here is what she wants done:

Interviews with CATS technicians and leaders, as well as the city manager’s office. A thorough review of safety reports and inspection records, and emails with city officials.

It has the makings of a thorough probe.

But will the city of Charlotte do a lackadaisical job?

CATS' interim CEO Brent Cagle has been relatively forthright during his nearly four months on the job. (Although he failed to acknowledge how the North Carolina Department of Transportation blasted CATS, calling its response to the derailment “'unclear, insufficient and not acceptable.”)

The city of Charlotte, however, is as transparent as mud.

The city manager, Marcus Jones, rarely gives interviews. The city stonewalls public records requests. And in the aftermath of the disclosure about the derailment, Mayor Vi Lyles was focused more on criticizing the governing structure of CATS instead of asking why CATS' management decided to hide the derailment from the public.

Case in point: Last year the city hired a consultant to do a management review of CATS. The city spent $70,000 and only received a 40-page PowerPoint. Much of the presentation was photos and background information written in a large typeface.

After the media asked for the full report, the city said it didn’t receive anything else from the group, Management Partners. (Is that what the city wanted when it hired the consultant?)

Here are a few thoughts on the probe:

  • Who will take the lead in hiring the investigator? 

    The MTC does not have a budget. The city does. Will the city take over the process? Will Altman and her colleagues have a say in who is hired? 

  • The city/MTC needs to hire a lawyer, not a consultant.

    If the MTC wants to find out exactly what happened, it needs someone trained in discovery and used to reading thousands of pages of emails and documents. Consultants tend to offer broad statements about a “lack of trust” and a “culture of silence.” Cagle has already said that much.

  • A thorough investigation will almost certainly name names. But a CATS employee could claim that is part of their personnel file and can’t be released to the public.

    To avoid this problem, the City Council should vote to release information from personnel files of CATS employees mentioned in the report. While that information is private under state law, elected officials can vote to release it if doing so is “essential to maintaining public confidence.”

    The School Board did that when it released part of the personnel file of former Superintendent Earnest Winston.

  • The talk about CATS' governance structure is an odd thing to discuss now. 

    CATS is a city department, and the CEO reports to the city manager. The MTC has also oversight over the transit system — usually around issues such as what transit projects should be built first.

    Lyles said having two governing bodies is like when a mother and father disagree and the child is given conflicting advice.

    But was either one of the parents encouraging CATS to skip required maintenance and hide problems?

    “I have also heard it raised that the governing structure is in some shape or form an apparent explanation for these failures,” Altman said during the meeting. “(But) there is no ambiguity that CATS is a public enterprise of the city of Charlotte. There is no ambiguity that CATS' CEO directly reports to the city manager. It can not be said that anyone at CATS is unclear who they should report to and this is the reason that all of the lapses occurred.”

I had written previously about how the MTC was too often a rubber stamp for CATS. That has changed.

Steve Harrison is WFAE's politics and government reporter. Prior to joining WFAE, Steve worked at the Charlotte Observer, where he started on the business desk, then covered politics extensively as the Observer’s lead city government reporter. Steve also spent 10 years with the Miami Herald. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, the Sporting News and Sports Illustrated.