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Outgoing Coast RTA board chair: Transit left ‘better than I found it’

jblackmon@thesunnews.com

Former Coast RTA board Chairman Bernie Silverman’s two-year tenure has been punctuated by tongue lashings from Horry County officials and members of the public, cuts of state funding for a failed bus shelter program and finding a way to work with three chief executive officers.

Silverman, like all Coast board members, is a volunteer. But his role as chairman, which ended Wednesday, often put him in the line of fire for scoldings from politicians angry over the transit system’s recurring stumbles. His personable nature, his transparency, and his accessibility to the media and public showed he was willing to go above and beyond the board room as chairman.

Even as Silverman presided over discussions at Coast’s Conway headquarters, he could look to the near ceiling-high windows and know what sits beneath those window panes — four benches, two trash cans, a no smoking sign and a bunch of people waiting on reliable buses.

He often looked at the clock, knowing when the bus was scheduled to arrive.

“And I think about what they need,” Silverman said.

He knows about those needs more than most county leaders. He relies on the system himself after losing most of his vision and ability to drive.

Silverman’s start

Silverman first got involved with the Waccamaw Regional Transportation Authority in the early 1980s, but didn’t really get involved until the agency started getting flack for its then-CEO Benedict Shogaolu, who pleaded guilty in 2006 to three felony public-corruptions charges. Shogaolu was fired from Coast in 2004 after an investigation by The Sun News uncovered misspent public money and violations of state and federal laws.

“I really never got that much involved until the Shogaolu thing,” Silverman said. “There was so much bad feeling about Coast...”

Silverman did occasionally attend meetings, and in early 2007, he saw an ad in the paper that Horry County’s legislative delegation was looking for board members. A short time later, Silverman was appointed to the board.

“The biggest challenge has always been funding,” Silverman said. “We’ve really struggled for funding at every turn. We’ve had to fight a very old reputation.”

That reputation included late buses, broken down buses and buses that sometimes didn’t even show up. Coast has since worked on improving its reliability reputation, and Silverman said he believes it has gotten better.

“For the guy on the street, maybe on the corner, he’s glad we’re there,” Silverman said. “I’m glad we’re there.”

Though Silverman’s chairmanship included monitoring reliability, reputation and accountability, the behind-the-scenes action is what made his two-year term tumultuous.

On missteps and criticisms

In Silverman’s years as chairman, he’s seen a failed bus shelter program that resulted in the reimbursement of more than $320,000 in state funds that will take Coast years to pay back. He’s been at the helm when the county dissected the failed bus shelter program, prompting questions about the extent of the board’s accountability standards.

Silverman, along with other board members, spent a lot of time working on the addition of two more Horry County-appointed board members. And he was the man who had to turn to his then-CEO Myers Rollins and read a statement terminating his contract just minutes before a Coast board meeting in April 2014.

He immediately backed then-chief financial officer Julie Norton-Dew as interim general manager.

Horry County wasn’t as involved in the appointment of Norton-Dew, but they wanted to make sure they had a say in who the permanent replacement would be, so they included that clause in a funding agreement Coast and the county entered in 2014.

“I’ve taken a lot of criticism for being, not so much lately but under the previous administration, for being too soft on the county, for giving in too much, for being weak,” Silverman said. “ But, I don’t believe we can do it without the county... We need the county leaders.”

In April, Horry County Council Chairman Mark Lazarus was highly critical of Norton-Dew’s administration, saying he was upset she handed out a “fact-finding document” where a company examined Coast’s procedures rather than undergoing a forensic audit the council asked for a year prior in the funding agreement.

Lazarus said his problem wasn’t with Silverman, and credited him with doing what needed to be done.

“Bernie’s a great guy. He took his role very seriously and I appreciate that,” Lazarus said. “I appreciated the understanding and working relationship that he and I had. We had open communication. Bernie’s whole goal was to create a world class bus system for our citizens. Of all people to understand it, Bernie understands it because he uses it.”

In April, Coast prematurely sent out a press release announcing the hiring of Brian Piascik as its new CEO. Per its funding agreement, however, County Council was to have a chance to review their hire before it was made official.

Silverman said it was a bad call to send out the press release and took the blame.

“There was the time that [Lazarus] really did give it to me in April,” Silverman said. “I made a misstep. I knew what I wanted to say and I let the wrong thing out. I take responsibility. He let me have it, and he let us all have it again with the cleaning house thing.”

Lazarus also let loose on Silverman and Piascik in a public meeting, essentially telling them to “clean house” at Coast before Piascik took over in May. Norton-Dew resigned the day Piascik was officially hired, and Felicia Beaty, chief operating officer, is no longer with Coast.

“That was a tough one,” Silverman said of Norton-Dew’s departure. “That was one of the toughest ones I had because I worked very hard with Julie. I worked a long time and she worked very hard. She gave it as much as anyone gives anything. I’m not praising her because she’s not here and we asked her to leave, she gave everything to that job. “But [Lazarus] was right. He was right. Brian had to stand alone.”

On the change in leadership

Silverman said terminating Rollins’ contract was tough to do.

“That was a big one,” Silverman said. “That was a struggle, and that was a struggle for everybody, not just me, but the whole board. It was a tough time for everybody.”

“And I took a lot of criticism, too. From the county and from people who didn’t want to see Mr. Rollins terminated. He was an African American leader in our community, and they have the right to say that.”

Silverman said it came down to putting friendships and partnerships aside, and business first.

“They’re doing their job to try and protect the people they want to see in the community,” Silverman said. “My job is a different job. My job is to find $200 every time a bus pulls out, and I was determined to do my job.”

Norton-Dew’s departure was really the culmination of years of disorganization, Silverman said.

“The select committee pointed out to me, and probably others, that we were not as strong as we needed to be, and that we just let that shelter program go,” Silverman said. “We were criticized by people who gave public comment. ‘Where was the board?’ they said. And I agree with them. The board wasn’t there on that. We should have been. We should have said, ‘Look, we’ve got a big problem here. Can you fix the problem or do you need more help to fix the problem?’ I think Julie took a lot of the brunt of that hyper-scrutiny as a result of that.”

Piascik is just beginning his tenure and has yet to prove his abilities, but Silverman says early indications show he was the right choice.

“In the end, what saved me and saved Coast is Brian coming along,” Silverman said. “He has the skills that we really need.”

End of the route

Though Silverman will remain on the board until at least 2016, he will no longer face criticism as its leader. Coast board member Joe Lazzara assumes the duties for two years

Lazarus said he thinks Silverman did a stand-up job considering all he had to endure.

“His advocacy for it was well-taken,” Lazarus said. “I really like his insight and what he’s done. A lesser person would have walked away and said, ‘I don’t need this,’ especially a volunteer position.”

Silverman said there may have been times he was discouraged, but never to the point of letting the public, or his fellow riders, down.

“I’m not sad to be finishing and I’m not sad to be passing it along,” Silverman said. “There was never a time where I said, ‘Oh, what have I done? I’d love to get out of this right now. I wish I could resign.’ I just decided I was going to do the best I could. There were times where I felt like I spent the whole week at it.”

Silverman credits the rest of the board for helping get the transit system headed down the right track.

“All in all, I feel that I left it better than I found it, and I take only part of the credit for that,” Silverman said. “We’ve had a very dedicated board. I’ve made some mistakes.”

“I’ve been trying to make a positive impact on transit. It’s important to me and it’s important to a lot of people.”

Contact JASON M. RODRIGUEZ at 626-0301 or on Twitter @TSN_JRodriguez.

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