July 25 2012 12:00 AM

The "current culture" of CATA drives international traffic expert from board position

With a Ph.D in transportation from Michigan State University and nearly 50 years of experience in the field, Thomas Maleck is resigning from the local public transportation authority’s board in disgust.

Maleck, considered an international expert in transportation engineering, was appointed in September by the Meridian Township Board of Trustees to serve as its representative on the Capital Area Transportation Authority Board of Directors. An MSU professor, he teaches topics such as highway design, civil engineering analysis, highway and traffic safety and engineering ethics. He has received multiple state and international awards and special recognition from three Michigan governors. He has conducted lectures on the ethics of engineering across the state.

Yet Maleck’s appointment was met with unrelenting pressure from CATA about a perceived “conflict of interest” regarding his employment with MSU.

“My professional reputation is respected across the state and around the world,” Maleck wrote to CATA and Meridian Township administrators in a November email. “It is insulting that CATA would suggest that I would put myself in a position where there is a conflict of interest.”

Maleck drafted a resignation letter last month and notified a Meridian Township official Tuesday morning that he is looking for a replacement. He is the only member of the CATA board with full-time employment in the transportation field.

CATA is run by a board of directors made up of representatives from the five areas it serves: Lansing, East Lansing, Lansing Township, Delhi Township and Meridian Township. Each area pays a subsidy to CATA. 

When Susan McGillicuddy, Meridian Township supervisor, appointed Maleck to the CATA board in September, she thought she was putting the best possible candidate in the position to serve the township. Since then, McGillicuddy said she’s felt “constant pressure” from CATA administrators to remove his appointment.

“CATA says there is a conflict of interest,” McGillicuddy said. “I don’t understand it. He’s so well qualified. They’ve put constant pressure on me to remove him. It’s very frustrating when you find someone who can help us and help CATA and they put him through this witch-hunt.”

The conflict

Peter Kuhnmuench, CATA’s board chairman, said it’s Maleck’s employment with the university that poses the problem.

Maleck works for MSU both as a professor and a traffic adviser with the university’s planning department. MSU has contracts with CATA that, Kuhnmuench said, may mean a conflict of interest.

Kuhnmuench said CATA’s conflict of interest policy is “very broad.” Even the “appearance of a conflict” is problematic, he said. A conflict of interest policy is put in place to ensure that no one on the board can vote on items which they personally, a family member or employer may be able to benefit financially. 

“No decision” has been made regarding the concerns and “personal conversations” have been ongoing for roughly eight months, he said.

Despite the possible conflict, Maleck has been allowed to vote and participate in board meetings.

Kuhnmuench said Maleck was “unwilling to respond to requests” to answer questions about the conflict of interest policy. But in his November email to CATA officials, Maleck said he was willing to go before the board at his first official meeting to address its concerns. However, nothing about Maleck’s supposed conflict of interest has officially come before the board.

Sandy Draggoo, CEO of CATA, was asked about Maleck’s situation. She had little to say other than that it relates to “the code of conduct policy adopted by the board.”

Several people who understand Maleck’s position with MSU, know him personally and know the role of the CATA board don’t see any reason to run him out of his position.

Fred Poston, MSU vice president for finance and operations and treasurer, said a conflict of interest is “quite a stretch.”

“I’m not sure what conflict they’re talking about,” he said. “He’s not in a decision-making position (with MSU). He advises me and the police on traffic concerns.”

Over the past five years, Maleck helped reduce serious traffic accidents on the MSU campus by 83 percent, Poston said, adding that Maleck’s expertise and ethical standards are “well respected.”

“I don´t understand the conflict,” said Mark Grebner, a longtime Ingham County commissioner who serves as a non-voting member on the CATA board. “Pat Cannon (the CATA board secretary/treasurer) works with the state of Michigan. The state has many contracts with CATA. Can Cannon be on the board?”

Nathan Triplett, mayor pro tem of East Lansing, also sits on the CATA board. He said he was “aware of the situation” and that “from the information I’ve seen, I personally don’t see” a conflict.

“It sounds like we’re talking about politics and not law,” Grebner said. He said it would be fair to compare the board to a “good ole boys club.” 

After the constant “soap opera” surrounding the conflict of interest policy, Maleck said enough is enough and decided to step down from his position this week after speaking with McGillicuddy.

He said he accepted the board position with the idea of improving CATA by integrating it more with other public and private transportation services. He said it’s “impossible” for one board member to make a difference given the board’s “current culture.”

“It didn’t appear the existing board had great oversight on the actions of the administrators,” he said. “I’m a person with a good background, I have commitment and I could be a problem for them. I cannot rubber stamp anything, it’s not my personality.”

The issue goes beyond his personal appointment, he said. The fact that CATA ran off a township-appointed representative is “very sad.”

“It doesn’t matter what your personality is,” he said. “Cities and townships should have the right to choose who has oversight of their funding.”