Metro Transit's Bad Boy List
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.
A few weeks later, a female customer reported that Burks said he was going to "whoop" her because he thought she was talking about him.
These were just two of the 22 complaints Burks received in 2008, landing him near the top of the Bad Boy List.
When a complaint comes in, the driver is immediately called in to meet with a garage manager, Gibbons says. "And if it were a serious customer-relation situation, the garage manager could have the videotape taken from the bus."
In May 2008, garage manager Mark Crooks and union representative Russel Dixon sat down with Burks for a formal hearing to discuss his latest complaints from passengers, including for erratic driving.
"You need to listen," Dixon told Burks. "If this guy fires you, you're going to [stay] fired."
Nevertheless, the complaints kept piling up. In one case, Burks refused to lower the hydraulic lift for a disabled woman until she asked politely.
"She came in and said, 'You need to lower the lift for me,' and I said, 'Excuse me?'" Burks recalls indignantly. "These are things that these people should have been taught when they were growing up."
Additional complaints came in about Burks selectively ignoring stops. In one incident, Burks yelled at a physically disabled customer and threatened to kick her off of the bus because she couldn't fold up her walker. He claims he did it for safety reasons, but multiple witnesses maintain he was unnecessarily rude.
For failing to properly report three accidents, Metro Transit issued Burks his second Final Record of Warning on January 1, 2009. It stipulated that if he received any more confirmed violations he risked being fired.
"The Record of Warning is part of the established process with ATU," Gibbons explains. "It's designed to inform the employee they're in a precarious situation, and performance needs to improve. Records of Warnings come and go with some regularity."
Since that meeting, multiple infractions have occurred, including a case in which Burks made a woman wait outside on a -22 degree day. He says she should have just waited in her car.
"And when she left her house she shouldn't have come out with wet hair," Burks adds. "That's her problem."
In total, Burks was discharged three separate times, but was able to save his job with help from the union. He attended multiple driver-training programs and is under closer supervision, but still had eight customer contacts on his record in 2009.
If an agreement cannot be made in three grievance hearings between the union and Metro Transit, members of the union, which includes employees ranging from mechanics to janitors, vote on which cases to bring before an arbitrator. About four cases make it to arbitration each month. In 2009 Metro Transit won the majority of the disputes. But no matter how severe a driver's rule violation, the union often chooses to go head-to-head against Metro Transit.
"What you need to understand is that with accusations, that's exactly what they are," says Sommers, the union rep. "It's got to be proven that somebody did something wrong."
A man in blue jogging pants and a pullover waited in downtown Minneapolis on Nicollet Mall. He saw a bus pulling away from a stop near Seventh Street and hopped in front of it, waving his arms to get the driver's attention.
Driver Paul Kiefner saw him, but continued on to the next stop anyway. The man darted across the intersection to catch up.
Kiefner let a woman on board, saw the man in blue approaching, and quickly shut the door. The man banged on the glass until the 57-year-old bus driver let him on.
The passenger immediately confronted Kiefner, who in turn flashed a can of pepper spray.
"A little Mace thing won't help your ass," the passenger said.
"You want to bet?" Kiefner replied.
The passenger, who had multiple violent offenses on his record, sat in the back of the bus for half of the ride. With about 15 minutes to go until his stop in the northwest suburbs, the passenger walked from the back and stood silently behind Kiefner.
As the bus slowed to a halt, Kiefner got defensive. "I will not hesitate to use this ice scraper," he warned.
When the door opened, the passenger grabbed Kiefner's sunglasses, threw them on the dashboard, and ran out the door.
Kiefner had to make his decision: He knew leaving the bus would be a violation of policy. No matter. Ice scraper in hand, Kiefner charged out after the assailant. About 20 yards from the bus, the man turned around and lunged at Kiefner, knocking him to the ground.
Kiefner had a long history of confrontation with passengers in his 15 years on the job. In a performance appraisal he was scolded for becoming angry and rude with customers and a manager described Kiefner as being "prone to mood swings." Kiefner had been fired twice before, but Metro Transit awarded Kiefner Last Chance Agreements in both cases.
According to documents provided by Metro Transit, Kiefner kept his job once after hitting a woman with an ice scraper. Kiefner denied that allegation in an interview, but in a transcribed discussion with Metro Transit dated fall 2009, he admitted to hitting a girl with an ice scraper on a route near the Mall of America.
When told this statement was in the grievance document, Kiefner claims that Metro Transit improperly released the information.
"You are handling an illegal document," Kiefner says. "Metro Transit is using whatever they can, whenever they can, even though it's illegal, to make this driver and other drivers look bad. I'm going to end this conversation and call my lawyer."
Kiefner was discharged for "using a deadly weapon in the attempted assault of a customer." He claims that his criminal charge for disorderly conduct was instigated by Metro Transit.
"Metro Transit pushed to have that disorderly conduct [charge]," Kiefner says. "It was done just before my grievance, and it was even brought up in my arbitration."
In that hearing, Kiefner argued that although he wielded the ice scraper in his hand, he never intended to use it aggressively, only for self-defense.
The arbitrator ruled in Kiefner's favor, as the angle of the camera did not definitively establish that he made an aggressive swinging motion with the scraper.
Kiefner was reinstated October 7 and issued his third Last Chance Agreement. Part of the deal stipulated that Kiefner had to attend three different training programs. However, because of confidentiality rules, Metro Transit cannot check in on whether their drivers actually attend the counseling programs or not.
In Kiefner's case, he decided to leave Metro Transit voluntarily to work as a driver for a logging company.
"I did win the arbitration, and I just couldn't go back," Kiefner says. "After 15 years it was enough dealing with the general public—everyone looks down their nose at the bus driver."
Metro Transit's Fred T. Heywood Office Building sits three blocks from Target Field in downtown Minneapolis. Inside, an automated control center tracks the movements of every bus in the system.
From that building, Director of Bus Operations Christy Bailly oversees driver punishment, among other responsibilities. Bailly took over her post in January after serving six months as acting director.
Bailly and Metro Transit spokesman Bob Gibbons say the disciplinary system holds drivers accountable, and that employees like Poole and Burks showed improvement after management tightened the screws and assigned more oversight.
"When [drivers] don't live up to expectations, our mindset is not to immediately fire them," Gibbons says. "It's to get them the training, the information, and the techniques that they need to improve their performance."
But many complaints and violations never make their way to an operator's record in the first place. When faced with a complaint, garage managers weigh the testimony of drivers against the word of complaining passengers.
"Sometimes you can tell," Bailly says. "You can kind of get a sense sometimes from a customer if they're being truthful or not, just by the conversation."
Even after multiple complaints have been verified and a driver has performed poorly, contractual provisions give drivers a clean slate after three years.
"That 36-month window is part of the operating policy and was negotiated with the ATU," Bailly explains.
So the Bad Boys drive on.
"We have a contract with our customers to be at a particular point at a particular time, and we want to live up to that contract," Gibbons says. "And the main player in living up to that contract is the operator."
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