Rail exec's resignation prompts call for reform

Jeffrey Barker had overseen communications for California High-Speed Rail Authority for two years

The resignation Thursday of a California High-Speed Rail Authority executive, Jeffrey Barker, has led a Palo Alto watchdog group to renew its call for a "giant culture change" at the state rail agency.

Barker was the rail authority's deputy executive director in charge of communication, policy and public outreach. Appointed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2009, Barker said in his resignation letter to co-workers, quoted by the Sacramento Bee, that he was leaving "to pursue other endeavors," including writing and communications strategy.

Barker's departure comes one month after the embattled authority's public-relations firm, Ogilvy Public Relations Worldwide, quit. It had been hired in November 2009 under a $9 million, five-year contract, to turn the tides of criticism that had pounded the agency. However, the authority continued to come under fire, particularly from residents on the Peninsula who contest the plans and the process for constructing the $65 billion rail line between Los Angeles and San Francisco.

A representative from the Palo Alto grassroots group Californians Advocating Responsible Rail Design (CARRD), which aims to ensure public interests are upheld by the rail authority, said Saturday that transparency is missing from the state agency.

"You can fire your PR agency and your head of communications can leave, but in the end, someone is telling them what to do. There needs to be a giant culture change to fix the systemic transparency issues, and we don't know who, if anyone, at the authority is truly interested in that goal," Nadia Naik, co-founder of CARRD, stated.

A rail authority spokesperson, however, asserted that the agency is devoted to providing information to the public.

"The California High-Speed Rail Authority is committed to transparency and strives to ensure access to the project details and documents through various platforms including its website, webcasting, public meetings and more," Rachel Wall said in an email Saturday.

On Wednesday, CARRD had gone public with its then-unsuccessful attempts to get the authority to release information under the California Public Records Act request. Among the requests was a final report from the peer-review panel responsible for analyzing the authority's estimates of how many riders would use the rail line.

The initial request was made March 22. Despite a requirement that a decision on the request be made within 10 days, or a reason is provided that the records cannot be released, the authority failed to follow through on the request for a full three months, Naik said.

In the Wednesday letter to the rail-authority's board, CARRD co-founder Elizabeth Alexis detailed the communications between CARRD and the rail authority. In late April, Barker told CARRD that the peer-review committee had not submitted documentation of its January through March deliberations to the authority. Then in mid-May, he said that the requested information would be available at the end of the following week. In early June, he again said that documents would be forthcoming. And in mid-July, he said that there were no documents, only drafts, which could not be released, Alexis wrote. In addition, she said, Barker commented that CARRD just wanted to make the rail authority look bad on CARRD's website.

On Thursday, the day after CARRD's letter to the board and the same day that Barker announced his resignation, the authority released the report from the five-member peer review committee. The report covers findings and recommendations from the January through March period. In it, the panel expresses "significant concerns" about the model the agency's consultant used to estimate future ridership and urges the authority to make the forecasts more conservative, "especially for financial (investment and risk) analysis."

Wall, of the rail authority, said that the agency's release of the report this week came "shortly after" the peer-review committee had provided it.

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