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TriMet shouldnt leave public trust behind

The community's trust in government agencies is hardly boosted when a public employee goes off the rails and starts berating customers and taxpayers.

But even when such inexcusable actions occur - as they did in late September on Line 57 with a TriMet bus driver - the real issue isn't the behavior of a single individual, but rather the public agency's reaction.

On that score, we agree with TriMet General Manager Neil McFarlane that his agency could increase its credibility with the community by also increasing the speed and transparency of its response toward errant employees.

We realize this is tricky ground involving confidential personnel records and the need to comply with union processes. But we also think there's a path TriMet could take to ensure that the public clearly sees it dealing with problem employees, even while protecting their employment rights.

The incident in question occurred Sept. 29 in Hillsboro, when a driver scolded a passenger who had a crying child. When the driver told the woman she would have to take the toddler off the bus if the child did not stop crying, other passengers were so offended that they left the bus in protest one stop later.

The incident could be chalked up as a particularly bad day for the driver, if not for the fact that the same individual has a long history of similar complaints. A public records request by the Portland Tribune reveals that 209 complaints have been lodged against this driver during her 10-year tenure. The driver has a pattern of being confrontational and disrespectful toward the public.

That's hardly the image TriMet hopes to project as it grapples with difficult and contentious issues. The transit agency is being forced to cut service, due to the struggling economy. At the same time, it is pursuing expansion of its light-rail system to Milwaukie - through communities that have mixed feelings about MAX's arrival.

Overall, we believe TriMet has been building public trust in the past few years as it dealt more directly with the matter of safety and transit-related crime. And it recently has allocated more money to the job of training its employees in customer service. However, it is operating in an environment where the public has lost faith in government agencies in general.

When it comes to addressing unacceptable behavior, TriMet's challenge is that very public acts - such as drivers being rude to passengers - have often been resolved in the privacy of a personnel file. But McFarlane acknowledges that TriMet can enhance riders' trust by being more transparent and public in its actions. When people have legitimate complaints, they want to know exactly how those concerns are resolved.

TriMet was able to provide such openness in the case of the MAX driver who left the station after a child was separated from his father. The agency fired the driver and announced its decision. Similarly, when a bus driver accidently killed two people in Old Town, the agency again fired the driver and announced its decision.

In this instance, however, an employee has been a serial offender of the agency's rules, but her discipline has been done in secret - until now.

We don't think this driver is at all representative of the more than 1,400 TriMet operators who interact with 330,000 riders on a daily basis. But one bad apple can sour an entire agency's image if complaints aren't dealt with directly and openly - and such swiftness is what we hope to see from TriMet as the agency learns from this case of the disagreeable driver.