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Warner takes the helm


Warner negotiates through a minefield of controversies

During TriMet’s ongoing labor dispute, Amalgamated Transit Union 757 officials and their supporters have focused much of their criticism on the agency’s general manager. They have practically accused Neil McFarlane of single-handedly destroying the regional transit agency by insisting on service cuts, fare increases and union benefit reductions to balance the budget.by: TRIBUNE PHOTO BY CHASE ALLGOOD - TriMet board president and Hillsboro resident Bruce Warner regular rides the MAX line from his home near Orenco Station to Portland.

But when McFarlane recently spoke about TriMet’s problems before the Hillsboro Chamber of Commerce, he was not alone. He was joined by Bruce Warner, the president of the transit agency’s board of directors.

Warner, who moved to Hillsboro about 18 months ago, said his appearance was meant to convey the message that McFarlane is not acting on his own.

“Neil is operating with the full understanding and support of the board. We respect what he is trying to make happen,” explained Warner.

ATU 757 officials, however, question whether the board is aware of everything McFarlane does.

“When you go to the meetings, you wonder if the board has even read what they’re voting on,” said ATU 757 President Bruce Hansen.

But in fact, since becoming president in February 2012, Warner has been more active and visible than any of his predecessors in recent memory. Among other things, he has personally signed guest editorials and letters concerning such hot-button issues as TriMet driver overtime and the fight with the Clackamas County Board of Commissioners over completing the Portland to Milwaukie light rail line.

“We appreciate having a chair who understand our issues and is so involved,” said McFarlane.

No one who knows Warner should be surprised by his high profile. Before becoming president, he held a series of increasingly pressure-filled public positions in the state and region, including executive stints at Hillsboro, Washington County, the Portland Development Commission, Metro and the Oregon Department of Transportation.

In fact, Warner said those jobs are what convinced him to become TriMet’s president. Like the other positions on the board, he was appointed by Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber and confirmed by the State Senate. When Kitzhaber first approached him about the position, McFarlane knew TriMet was facing an unprecedented series of challenges, ranging from the labor dispute to potential reductions in future federal transit support.

“I’m a longtime TriMet rider, and have had a chance to work with the agency on a number of valuable projects. I think transit is crucial to the livability of the region, but TriMet has a lot to do to rebuild its relationship with community, and I want to help that happen,” said Warner.

Million-dollar deals

In person, Warner hardly seems like the kind of person used to negotiating with elected officials, running large bureaucracies and brokering multi-million dollar deals. Trim and fit, with graying hair and a thick mustache, he looks more like a favorite uncle at a family gathering. He has a relaxed personality and is even dismissive of his extensive background.

“I guess I can’t hold a job,” Warner joked about his resume.

Even Hansen doesn’t bad mouth Warner.

“I haven’t had that many dealings with him, so I really don’t have anything to say about him,” said Hansen.

But those who have worked with Warner say he has a quick mind and a deep understanding of how to accomplish even the most complicated public projects. Before the TriMet board adopted the agency’s 2013-2014 budget on May 22, one critic in the audience jumped up and accused Warner of not knowing what was in it.

“I do, too. I’ve been doing public budgeting for years,” he calmly replied. The board unanimously approved the $485 million budget a few minutes later.

A registered professional civil engineer, Warner received his B.S.C.E. at the University of Washington in 1972 and took graduate work in sanitary engineering there the next year. He moved to Portland in 1974 to work as a project manager of federally-required wastewater management and water quality studies.

Warner was first introduced to Hillsboro in 1979 when he went to work for the city, first in the building department and later in the public works department. He then became director of Washington County’s Land Use and Transportation Department in 1984, a position he held until 1993.

After that, Warner became an Oregon Department of Transportation regional director, Metro CEO, ODOT director, and, in 2005, executive director of the Portland Development Commission. In each of these jobs, he worked with federal state and local official on regional transit projects.

“Bruce really understands how the regional transit system works. And he brings a lot of credibility to TriMet because he’s been involved in the state and region for so long,” said McFarlane.

Then in 2011, Warner returned to Hillsboro for an eight-month stint as the interim city manager. He helped develop the 2012-2013 budget, hire a new fire chief, and recruit and hire a permanent city manager.

Warner left that job in 2011 to form a consulting firm, the Warner Group LLC. Clients include Hillsboro and developers in South Hillsboro, where the city is planning a new community that will need transit connections to the city’s employment centers. He and his wife moved to Orenco Station in early 2012, drawn by its transit connections.

“Hillsboro is a city that needs transit to grow, and I enjoy walking to the MAX station when I need to take it,” said Warner.

Appointed by governor

In 2012, Kitzhaber named Warner president of the TriMet board. At that time, the agency was deep in the throes of multiple crises. The Great Recession had cut into the regional payroll tax that funds approximately half its operations. Internal projections showed union health benefit cost increases would seriously reduce future revenues. Many voters and some would-be politicians in Clackamas County were rebelling against the Portland to Milwaukie light rail line, which had already started construction. And activists were accusing the agency of sacrificing vital bus service to keep rail projects on track.

“TriMet has never been in the position it was in,” said Warner.

After becoming president, Warner set out to do what he thinks is right for TriMet. During the first few months, he oversaw the adoption of the current budget, which includes unpopular service cuts as well as fare increases. Free downtown Portland service and the historic multiple fare zones were eliminated. Some lines were trimmed or dropped altogether. Most riders saw increased fares.

Warner also embraced management’s insistence on reducing union health care costs. After years of stalled contract talks, an arbitrator imposed management’s last contract offer on the union last year. The union has appealed the decision to the state Employment Relations Board. Warner supports management’s decision to push for more union benefit concessions even before the appeal is resolved.

Warner has also squared off with the Clackamas County Commission over the Portland to Milwaukie rail line. When the commission placed two measures on the May 21 special election ballot that asked the county’s voters if they wanted to pull back from the project, Warner approved TriMet taking the county to state court to enforce their existing agreements.

Despite the hard lines he has taken, Warner said he is hopeful TriMet can resolve its problems. He is looking forward to bargaining on the next labor agreement, explaining that he believes management and the union can find a “win-win” approach to the health care cost issue. Warner also said he agrees that Clackamas County residents are entitled to vote on rail projects — but not ones where agreements and contracts have already been signed.

And Warner said he agrees with rider advocates that bus service deserves more attention going forward. He supports expanding bus service throughout Washington County, as called for in the agency’s Westside Enhancement Plan.

“Bus service is clearly the backbone of TriMet,” Warner pointed out.