Metro Transit's Bad Boy List

Twin Cities bus drivers seem to have an endless last chance

Benjamin Poole was tired when he pulled his Metro Transit bus into the Guardian Angels Park and Ride in Oakdale at 7:45 a.m. He parked, turned off the lights, and stretched his feet across a third-row seat to catch some quick shuteye.

It was -5 degrees that February 2009 morning, and the regular passengers were huddled outside. They were accustomed to waiting, but hoped to do so inside the warm bus. So they knocked on the door to get Poole's attention.

"I'm not your driver," he yelled through the closed door.

The freezing passengers could clearly see Poole trying to sleep, but continued to knock on the windows until Poole was again forced to respond.

"It's my break time!" he yelled. "Wait until the departure time and I'll let you on."

One passenger tried to force the bus door open, setting off an alarm. Poole turned over to get more comfortable.

Passengers continued trying to get into the bus until 8:05 a.m., when Poole finally opened the doors. Some passengers simply shook their heads as they made their way past the fare box, but two pissed-off riders asked Poole "why he had to be such an asshole," according to other passengers on the bus, and continued jawing after they had taken their seats.

Poole could hear them complaining and got angry. "I'm not moving the bus until you two get off," he warned. "I'm serious."

Poole got out of his seat, walked to the back of the bus, and got in the passengers' faces. He forced two more riders off the bus while he was at it.

"Anybody else have a problem with me?" Poole bellowed. "If you have anything to say, you can get off the bus, too."

Mark Spoto, a 47-year-old software engineer who used that Park and Ride every business day, took the opportunity to make his escape. Poole's attitude was so frightening that Spoto and another passenger decided it was safer to drive to work that day.

"I saw him arguing with one guy and I just said 'Okay, that's it, I've had enough,'" Spoto recalls. "Would you get in a car with somebody who's not rational?"

An arbitrator wrote that Poole's actions indicated "either seriously impaired judgment or a blatant disregard for the welfare of passengers."

Metro Transit imposed a 20-day unpaid suspension, but the Amalgamated Transit Union 1005 argued it down to 10 days, promising that "the next time he screws up he will be discharged."

"If you think Benjamin Poole is going to do what he did again, he's not," says Michelle Sommers, ATU 1005 president. "He lost two weeks' pay for that move. That's a heavy price to pay for making a mistake."

But this wasn't Poole's first lapse. He is one of a number of problem drivers who appear on what the ATU 1005 internally refers to as its "Bad Boy List."

In 2008, Metro Transit created the biannual list to track the number of complaints made against each of its more than 1,200 bus drivers. Obtained by City Pages, the lists offer a who's-who of Metro Transit's most problematic drivers.

To qualify for the Bad Boy List, a driver has to rack up more than six customer service complaints in a six-month stretch. Not every complaint is upheld; only those verified by a manager go onto a driver's public record.

When an irate passenger can't be reached for follow-up, Metro Transit lets the matter drop. If the complaint is pursued, Metro Transit opens up a "contact" file.

No matter how many contacts a driver receives, the Bad Boy List never results in discipline—simply a meeting with a garage manager to discuss the infractions.

This explains how Poole could accrue 28 separate customer complaints within a year and a half and remain on the road. Some drivers have stayed behind the wheel despite multiple verified incidents of aggression or rudeness toward passengers.

In Poole's Final Record of Warning, Metro Transit stipulated that he could not receive more than two verified customer service complaints in the next six months.

He received seven unverified complaints in the first half of 2009, but remains on the road to this day.

Since the most recent list was published, Poole has had three incidents resulting in contact files. One of those was verified, but was stricken from his record through the grievance process.

In the Metro Transit system, 39 drivers are on Final Records of Warning and 23 are on active Last Chance Agreements, which is supposed to be the final straw.

"It's been our experience that the Last Chance Agreement works in about three out of four cases," Metro Transit spokesman Bob Gibbons says. "One in four employees simply can't live up to the terms."

Victor Burks had a tendency to overreact. After an influx of passenger complaints, Metro Transit sent him to a psychotherapy center for eight hours of anger management training, which he completed in April 2008.

"I was a driver that would put the whole bus out if somebody did something I didn't like," Burks says. "But that program really put it all into perspective."

Just five days after he finished the program, however, Burks received another complaint—for lecturing a disabled customer and refusing to pick him up at a stop the next day.

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