And Now, The Inevitable Racial Food Fight At CATS

This was going to happen sooner or later. You could find it under “inevitable” in the dictionary.

Last week the CEO of Baton Rouge’s dysfunctional Capital Area Transit System Bob Mirabito appeared as a guest on the podcast of local media personality Clay Young, the audio of which you can hear here.

Mirabito is widely credited with stepping in to provide CATS with something approaching competent – and even reasonably honest – management, which given the history of the bus service is a near-Herculean task. But even with some degree of competent management CATS isn’t all of a sudden turning a profit or delivering a competitive product. The problems are far too deep for that.

In fact, for the trouble of attempting to bring the bus service’s finances in line Mirabito has presided over dissension in the ranks, so much so that last month Metro Councilwoman C. Denise Marcelle made a big show of demanding his resignation over a personnel issue surrounding a few of his subordinates, and he’s developed problems with the union representing his employees.

But an even bigger problem for Mirabito is that despite adding routes and attempting to upgrade some of the buses in service, he’s still not generating many riders. This was always going to be a problem, as Baton Rouge is a suburban city with almost universal car ownership, and the culture of the city doesn’t embrace public transportation – so there’s a nearly intractable problem of building ridership in this market.

Young asked Mirabito about the challenges, and his response will likely clinch his demise

Young told Mirabito in the interview, that it was obvious there were racial tensions in the agency.

“We’re not going to pretend here on this show it didn’t exist,” Young said. ” It existed. There’s a huge divide there.”

Mirabito said  that he “doesn’t see the color of somebody’s skin” but indicated that he wishes his overwhelmingly black staff better represented the demographics of the city of Baton Rouge (which is about 55 percent black, 45 percent white).

“CATS is actually 95 percent African-American. And unfortunately our demographics don’t match Baton Rouge. I would love to have a workforce that matches the demographics of Baton Rouge because I think there are some people out there who may not ride CATS buses because they don’t like the color of an operator’s skin … That’ a shame.”

That is, of course, a stupid statement. The people Mirabito is talking about who don’t ride CATS buses for racial reasons are predominately older white women, particularly older white women who no longer drive. And their reticence about black people on CATS buses isn’t with the drivers, it’s with the other passengers.

Why Mirabito was looking there for a justification of the statement of preference for a workforce closer to the half-and-half population East Baton Rouge Parish roughly consists of, we have no idea. He caused himself a ton of trouble with the various attention hogs in town without actually addressing his real marketing problem – the fact that his service’s customer base has incompatible segments to it.

Yes, it’s unfortunate you have white people who don’t want to ride with black people, and it’s also unfortunate you have people, black or white, who can’t behave themselves in such a way as to not drive away other customers. We should all work to create a better society. But Mirabito isn’t paid to create racial harmony in Baton Rouge, he’s paid to make CATS not lose money. And had he accurately described a major impediment to his doing that he might have begun an adult discussion of the subject within a context that could produce something workable as an answer.

Instead, he tried to lay up and promptly put his approach shot into the water.

The fallout? Immediate, as soon as the Advocate discovered the audio of Young’s podcast.

Metro Councilman John Delgado, a vocal critic of the agency’s leader, said Mirabito should apologize and be fired.

“If that’s his assessment of the potential ridership of Baton Rouge, then he’s an idiot and needs to be fired,” Delgado said. “It’s obscene. I find it offensive.”

Councilwoman C. Denise Marcelle, who called for Mirabito’s resignation last month for poor performance, said she is now calling on the board to fire him.

“If the board and my colleague who chairs the board sits there and allows that, we’ve got a real problem,” she said. She said if the CATS board does not act, she will bring up the issue at Metro Council.

And a little more…

Metro Councilwoman Tara Wicker was in disbelief at Mirabito’s comments.

“That kind of comment, though, ‘that I don’t think people are gonna ride the bus because they see a black operator,’ I think it’s an ignorant comment to make,” Wicker said. “No administrator of an organization such as CATS should ever say something like that … that comment in itself can only hurt this community.”

She said she is sincerely hopeful that people “in this day and age” are not abstaining from riding the bus because of racial prejudice.

“That would be like, I’m not going to a restaurant because my waiter’s black, or I’m not going to go to a movie theater because the person taking my ticket is black,” she said. “Anywhere you’re going to go is going to have a diverse workforce.”

Katie Guy, union president for CATS, said she was offended.

“When you say you would like to see it match the demographics of the city, that means that we need more Caucasians that African-Americans,” she said. “It irritates me. It shouldn’t matter the color of your skin. That shouldn’t matter.”

Upon which Mirabito took out another ball, and deposited that one into the drink as well…

Contacted by The Advocate for clarity, Mirabito stood by his comments.

“Whether the staff is made up of 95 percent African-American or white or Asian, it should be a goal to try to match the demographics of the community that we’re providing service for,” he said Monday in a phone interview.

Asked about his statements accusing people of not riding the bus because of racial prejudice, Mirabito said the same would be true if he had a majority white staff.

“If my workforce were 95 percent white, then there may be people who would not ride the bus because of the color of that person’s skin,” Mirabito said.

You can more or less color Mirabito gone. He’ll have lasted little more than a year and a half after replacing Brian Marshall, CATS’ previous CEO whose management was one reason for the circus surrounding the service to begin with, and whose relationship with Marcelle has been an item of some conversation for quite some time.

It’s hard to imagine Mirabito’s replacement not being more like Marshall than not, which doesn’t point to promising stewardship of the taxpayer dollars – if not rider fees – CATS is swimming in.

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