Stagecoach Faces Two Pathways

Front Page / Dec. 5, 2013 10:46am EST

VTrans Requires Shared Management
By M. D. Drysdale

I n the wake of last month’s upheaval in the leadership of the Stagecoach transportation system in Randolph, the state is stepping in. VTrans officials are requiring changes to protect the state’s investment in the program.

Stagecoach is being required to form a “management agreement” with Addison County Transit Resources (ACTR), a regional transit service based in Middlebury, The Herald was told yesterday by Barbara Donovan, the public transportation administrator at VTrans.

At the same time, The Herald was told, a Hanover man has been interviewed as a possible Stagecoach executive director, replacing David Palmer. Palmer, the founder and longtime director of the service, was forced from office last month by the organization’s board, sparked by the four-person finance committee.

The organization’s board is scheduled to meet next Thursday, Dec. 12 to consider both developments.

Path Not Clear

“We’re not clear what path we’re following,” explained Paul Haskell of Sharon, a finance committee member who has been doing office chores at Stagecoach headquarters the last couple of weeks.

If, as VTrans desires, Stagecoach hooks up with ACTR, it might not need its own executive director.

Haskell said it seems likely that Jim Moulton, the director at ACTR, “would be executive director here.” The Stagecoach would benefit from the added scrutiny, he said.

“They would be peering over our shoulders, financially.”

However, Donovan at VTrans said the relationship could take various forms, as long as it includes “management oversight” of Stagecoach operations.

Initial steps have been taken along both “paths” to the future. Some Stagecoach board members met with Moulton and his people on Friday, Nov. 22 to discuss a relationship, Haskell said. A “non-disclosure agreement” has been signed that will allow normally confidential information to be shared.

“They appear to be open to the idea,” he said.

From the Stagecoach’s point of view, the conversation revealed “a good fit” between agencies, he said. ACTR is a bigger organization than Stagecoach, though it serves a smaller geographic area, running north from Middlebury.

The negotiators’ goal is that dayto day management of Stagecoach operations remains local.

“What they (ACTR) do NOT seek is to absorb us,” Haskell said. “They don’t want to grow into a bigger organization.”

The Stagecoach board meeting on the topic will be informational only, he said. It will be “well into January” before more serious steps are taken, he predicted.

Job Candidate

Meanwhile, a group of three Stagecoach board members recently interviewed David R. Serra, a Hanover attorney whose resume includes being managing director of the Koop Foundation for two years, executive director of Vermont E-911 for five years, and executive director of the Coolidge Memorial Foundation for a year.

Serra had expressed interest in Stagecoach as early as last summer and was apparently aware three weeks ago that Palmer’s position was opening up.

While Serra was executive director at the Coolidge Foundation, the chair of the board was Jay Barrett of Fairlee, who is also a member of the Stagecoach board. Both Serra and Barrett resigned from the Coolidge Foundation board in June, criticizing the direction of the Foundation.

It is not clear whether Serra will be present at the Dec. 12 meeting of the Stagecoach board, though it was reported he has been invited.

Stability Is Goal

Asked to explain the new requirement that Stagecoach hook up with ACTR in Middlebury, Barbara Donovan at VTrans stated that the agency is pushing to stabilize the small transportation agencies throughout the state.

“When the agencies are that small, all the expertise rests in one person,” she said. “When an abrupt change occurs, it’s hard to recover.”

The “abrupt change” at Stagecoach has happened to two other organizations that work with VTrans, she said.

As long-time directors like Palmer reach retirement age, she said, “There’s a lot of expertise that is disappearing.” Also she pointed out, the transportation business itself is getting “more intricate” and complicated.

Having somewhat larger organizations makes more expertise available to meet those changes, said Donovan, who at one time in the past ran a small transportation system in Maine.

As to the Stagecoach situation, she declared, “there will definitely need to be (financial) changes.

“As the contracting agency for most of their transit funds, we want to be reassured that their funds are meeting requirements.”

The “management agreement” model, she noted, has been pioneered by two other transit agencies, one serving Connecticut River towns and the other serving part of the Deerfield Valley. In that case, she said, one of the organizations hired a director with approval of the other.

“We are finding that (agreement) to be very useful,” she said.

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