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Profile: Dorothy Dugger is first female BART GM

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  • 10/12 Contra Costa Times
    Published Monday, October 12, 2009, by the Contra Costa Times BART leader stays cool under pressure By Janis Mara Contra Costa Times With her understated
    Message 1 of 1 , Oct 12, 2009
      Published Monday, October 12, 2009, by the Contra Costa Times

      BART leader stays cool under pressure

      By Janis Mara
      Contra Costa Times

      With her understated elegance and steady demeanor, it's hard to believe someone once threw red paint on BART General Manager Dorothy Dugger.

      But the Rutgers graduate and 17-year BART veteran, who has said her greatest fear is disappointing people, has been a lightning rod for the anger and frustration felt by many of the transit agency's customers.

      The agency has drawn criticism for its handling of the Jan. 1 fatal shooting of unarmed passenger Oscar Grant III by a then-BART police officer, union negotiations that almost ended in a strike, and what some see as a culture of silence and a resistance to change.

      In some ways, though, the shooting shone a spotlight on the inner workings of BART as strong as the sunlight flooding into Dugger's office through a bank of east-facing windows overlooking Oakland's Lake Merritt.

      "Obviously, it was a tragic event," Dugger said. "It was shocking in the sense that this is an unusual and rare occurrence at BART. There have been three fatal officer-involved shootings in BART's 37-year history, and one nonfatal officer shooting. We are still learning the lessons with regard to the (Grant) shooting."

      After six months and dozens of public meetings, BART's board of directors unanimously passed a plan for civilian oversight of BART that now awaits passage by the Legislature. "An extended public process gave us a better product," the 56-year-old general manager said.

      Dugger's office displays paintings of BART trains and a gray couch with curving lines that, like a BART train, combines comfort and utility and shows relatively little wear despite its age. The state of those BART trains is one of Dugger's major accomplishments. She oversaw a $1.5 billion refurbishment of all BART cars and the replacement of fare equipment, elevators and escalators in the mid-1990s. She is currently charging ahead on a quest for more than $3 billion in federal funding to replace all 700 cars.

      Well-maintained trains are important to riders, but they care most about on-time performance, Dugger said. "Every two years we do rider surveys, and in 2008, we got a 5.7 percent rating for on-time performance, with 7 the maximum score."

      Dugger lives with her husband, Lou, in the Grand Lake district of Oakland, and though she doesn't ride BART to work, she makes a point of hopping a train at least once a month to check out how the system is looking. When not working long hours at the office, BART's first female general manager is likely gardening.

      Working at a public agency is natural for the Alabama native. "I grew up in the Civil Rights South and was raised with an ethic of public service," she said. The former legislative director for the American Civil Liberties Union worked at New York's Port Authority for 10 years as head of public affairs before being recruited by BART. "I was happy at the Port, but the BART job was an opportunity to dive deeper," she said.

      She started out in 1992 as executive manager of external affairs, overseeing a wide range of BART functions, such as customer service, government and community relations and public affairs. Two years later, she rose to second in command and, in August 2007, was appointed general manager.

      Within months, the transit agency was hit with a series of blows, including the fatal shooting Jan. 1 and union negotiations that progressed to the brink of a strike, averted at the last minute Aug. 16 when a tentative agreement with the Amalgamated Transit Union was reached.

      In earlier negotiations with a different union, Dugger's presence was what put things over the top, according to the president of BART's largest union.

      "I've known Dorothy since she first came to BART," said Lisa Isler, president of Local 1021 of the Service Employees International Union and a 20-year BART veteran. "Because I have respected her in the past and always found her to be honest, I did believe her when we were having talks about money issues. "... She was mostly present at the table the last week. The last night of our negotiations was a marathon session, 18 to 20 hours. In the end, she was able to close the deal."

      Accolades also came from management colleagues.

      "We needed $100 million back from our employees. She heard that and delivered on it. Dorothy brought back results many people thought couldn't be accomplished," said BART board member Joel Keller, whose district includes part of Contra Costa County.

      Board member Tom Radulovich, whose district includes San Francisco, said Dugger has not had as much success as he would like breaking through the BART culture.

      "Often with Dorothy I find myself saying, 'I'm your boss. Don't spin me. I don't want spin, I want facts, then I can make that decision," he said, calling some of Dugger's behaviors "secretive."

      "It's part of BART culture. Dorothy did not originate it, but I don't think she has done much to end it."

      The shooting and its aftermath put Dugger in the sights of many other critics.

      "She is a one-trick pony," said Krystof Lopaur of No Justice No BART, an activist group sharply critical of BART's handling of the Jan. 1 shooting. "When you look at how she has responded to this thing that happened the first of January, her only frame of understanding what happened is as a customer-service issue. So her review of the police has been designed to -- and this is how she phrases it -- to discover how to improve police services. There's no admission that a glaring mistake was made, and injustice was done. There's no concept of justice, of fairness."

      Dugger said two recently released independent reports, which were critical both of BART's handling of the Jan. 1 shooting and of the department itself, as an opportunity to learn.

      "It is always healthy to learn from outside eyes where we can make improvements," Dugger said. BART already has implemented recommended changes in policy, such as a requirement that BART officers report any use of force and an internal review of those reports.

      One thing most people agree on: Dugger is cool under pressure.

      "Dorothy has a very strong character. I saw her go toe to toe in union negotiations in 1997 with union folks screaming at her on TV and she stood her ground," said former BART general manager Tom Margro.

      Perhaps the ultimate example is the red paint incident, which took place at a heated BART board of directors meeting soon after the Grant shooting. As protesters and community members filled the room, one demonstrator armed with a tube of red paint squirted Dugger's chair and her jacket.

      Jean Hamilton, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, described Dugger's reaction.

      "She just took the jacket off and kept going."

      Reach Janis Mara at 925-952-2671.

      Biography
      Who: Dorothy Dugger
      Age: 56
      Occupation: BART general manager
      Residence: Oakland
      Education: Rutgers University
      Claim to fame: First female general manager for the transit agency
      Family: Lou, her husband
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