A Talk With The Boss

Muni director Emilio Cruz spent a couple of hours with RESCUE MUNI members Andrew Sullivan, George Musser, and David Varnum in early December. Here are excerpts of our conversation.

The Culture of Muni - The Budget and Hiring - Improvements on the Street, or Not - Civil Service Rules - Morale - Merit-Based Pay - Safety - Service Standards - Problems with the Metro - Making the Schedule Realistic - Fares - Life at the Top - Governance - Recruiting and Salary

The Culture of Muni
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We wanted to cover issues that are important to our membership and to people who care about Muni, and talk about your experience. You've been at Muni for about a year and a half?

Yes. At the end of this month will be a year and a half.

Compare Muni now with how it was when you first got here.

In the first year, inheriting a budget that was targeted at 90% of service, I knew that we [wouldn't be able] to make changes that [would] require money. So we looked at the operators: their attitude, their responsibility to the public, the discipline - things that don't require a lot of money, but do take a lot of energy. We renegotiated the PSR process, or Passenger Service Report, which is a complaint. When I got here, [there] was about a five-month wait. There were 965 outstanding PSRs. ... We knocked out all 965 complaints... and instituted a new policy whereby all hearings are held within a 60-day period.

What other cultural changes do you think you've been able to make?

Operators used to have the attitude that they didn't have to deal with the public in any courteous manner, because there were no ramifications. Now, an operator knows that if they do something, a PSR will happen within 60 days.... There are thousands of operators that I believe simply needed the type of reinforcement that somebody actually running this organization gave a shit. I think we had many, many operators who had basically given up hope in the internal management of Muni. They came to work with an attitude of "Nobody else cares, why should I." And now they're starting to see the types of changes we're making, the fact that we're not scapegoating drivers. Muni's problems are systematic and organizational. If you're going to blame anyone, you have to blame me, because now I'm in charge of this organization.

How often do you talk to operators?

In the first nine months I probably spoke to about a thousand operators - about half. ... I get feedback from the public that drivers' attitudes have improved, that they are more courteous, they are more professional. It is to the credit of the drivers that they themselves have started to change....

The Budget and Hiring
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During the last year's budget cycle we were able to get the single largest increase in Muni's budget in this department's history. It was not easy. I went to the mayor and I told him, "This department is about $30 million underfunded. And we must figure out a way to systematically bring the money back in. Just for starters, I'm going to need about $20 million in what is to this year's budget." Through the mayor's cycle, I wound up with 18 million. The budget analyst wanted to cut 5 million ... I fought and I fought and I was willing to walk into the board absolutely disagreeing with the Board of Supervisors' budget analyst over the budget. The day of the meeting, he agreed to [a] $1 million cut....

What do we get for the 17 million?

Almost 4 of that is salary adjustment. The lion's share of the additional money went to new positions [in] operations, maintenance, personnel, and MIS.

Improvements on the Street, or Not
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What sort of improvements in the efficiency and performance of existing lines have you seen, if any, in the last year?

I would not disagree with anybody who said they have not seen improvements on the street, because most of what we've been doing the last year and a half has been internal. Most of it has been addressing the hiring procedure, and how to get out of the hole of a 10% vacancy rate. It's been driver attitude and how to make them more professional and courteous. It's been towards discipline, to deal with the bad apples that we've had and go through a process of termination or retraining....

It will start to transfer out onto the street this summer and it will start to transfer out in the following ways. One, we will have more of the Breda vehicles in place ... so that our reliability of LRVs will go up. It will be visible because we will start to attack the [job] vacancy rate and start to make progress. We hope to reduce our vacancy rate by 50% [by] the end of this fiscal year....

To date since July 1, we have processed 449 employment transactions. We're doing about 100 a month in order to attack the vacancy rate. Now, an employment transaction doesn't always get you a new body, as I said. On operators, it's two to one. You know, for every two transactions, you get one new body. In maintenance, it's similar because you have so many promotional classes... If you fill a vacancy at the fourth step, it's from the third step.... Then you go through a hiring process to fill up third level, and it's somebody from the second level. So you go through all of these chain-reaction hires before you finally get a vacancy at the entry level and you finally get a new body on board....

Civil Service Rules
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Do you think it's realistic to change those civil-service rules?

I don't think you can do it with Muni alone. I think you'd have to do it city-wide. Some of the rules are within the department's parameters. For instance, when we put out the exam for operators, we changed the historic rules of how you hire an operator by saying there's two separate list, part-time and full-time, and you need a class-B driver's license. So that was a change we could make, albeit it took us a year.... On the maintenance side of it, we could benefit by the elimination of classifications....

What makes it difficult to make that change?

Well, inertia is probably the biggest thing. The Civil Service Commission has talked about reducing the number of classifications and I think that they are earnestly working towards that, but the city is so large, and the inertia in the old way of doing things is there....

Morale at Muni
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When you look back at this year and a half, what makes you most satisfied with what you've done? Do you have a Top 10 list?

(Laughs) I haven't done a Top 10 list. I think the biggest thing that I've done is start to instill a professional attitude around here. That in fact this is a workplace. That it is customer-driven. And that we have to deal with our patrons as customers.... There was a whole lot of favoritism going on before I was here; there was a whole lot of deals that were cut.... It all depended on who you knew. It was completely demoralizing for most of the employees, and as a result the morale around here stunk. ...

I've been very, very pleasantly surprised with the way that these people [superintendents] are changing. They're becoming managers. It's like spring and the flowers are growing. They're taking on responsibilities that they would not previously have done; they are taking their job very seriously, very personally; they are being given the authority to run their division, and they're really stepping up to the plate.

Has the union been part of the problem or part of the solution?

The union, by virtue of accepting dues from their employees, has the responsibility of representing those employees. Which means that when I find somebody that has done something egregious and in my view should be terminated, we are at opposite ends of the fence on that. And so we spend most of our time in antagonistic environments, fighting over grievances, fighting over terminations, and fighting over changes in policy....

How can that be changed? When we talk to the union guys, they always tell us that there are changes that they want to make and they find it hard to make those changes. ... Do you see a way out of that?

I don't know that there's any immediate change, or way to make a change. I also don't know that it's necessary to get to where we want to be. As far as I'm concerned, the policy of going from six accidents to three accidents is completely justifiable.... The union opposed it 100%.


You'll have to ask them. They come up with some very good ideas that need money. Everybody can come up with a really good idea that costs a lot of money, and we can put it on the shelf until we get money. But it doesn't do any good today. And so what I need to do is focus on what makes changes today, so we can start to build trust and confidence in the public to give us the money we need.

Merit-Based Pay
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If you could make one change - if you were God and could change one thing - what would it be?

That one's tough, but I think in the long term the one thing that would do this organization the most good would be elimination of all civil-service classifications and the ability to give merit-based pay.

Merit pay - is that just impossible today?

It is a brand new portion of the MEA contract with senior managers. Other than that it's absolutely illegal in all other ranks.

How would that work - merit-based pay?

You have a minimum bottom line - you have a job, you do your minimum goals, and you get paid. Anybody who produce[s] over that starts to get merit pay. ... For instance, as an operator, you go an entire year without a PSR, you get a bonus. That's an incentive not to get in fights with patrons.

Right now the way city government works is there is a line. And as long as you stay on the other side of that line, you're fine. And you have absolutely no incentive, other than whatever personal pride you have in your job, to get beyond that line. I have always argued that the way the city is set up, it breeds mediocrity. Because I found very early on that the only reward for good work is more work. ... [T]hose people that do excel do it out of personal pride, and eventually one of two things happens to them. They either move on because they get frustrated and somebody else recognizes their talent, somebody takes them away from you, or they get frustrated. they get complacent, and they go down to the same level as everybody else in the department.

Is that something you could change by renegotiating the contract, or is that actually against the law?

It's actually against the Charter. The civil service is defined by the Charter as a merit-based system; however, in my view, it is a seniority-based system.

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We know that there have been a lot of problems lately with accidents, and the National Transportation Safety Board is doing an investigation of Muni's safety record. What is your assessment?

Well, first of all, it was not the critical issue that the media portrayed it to be. The NTSB's report identified 10 minor accidents and 10 minor injuries... where we did over a million passenger trips....

How does it compare to other transit systems?

It's way below other properties. But what NTSB said is that the pattern of 10 minor accidents says, to them, that if this does not get checked and does not get addressed, will lead to major accidents. That's perfectly legitimate and understandable. We did not leave it unchecked. We immediately took the data from NTSB, we immediately put together a 10-point plan as to address all of the accidents that had happened to date, as well as a reassessment of our organization as to how we can better address system safety as a policy.... The media definitely blew up the NTSB report, and I have no problems with that. What I do have problems with is when the NTSB chairman himself... holds a press conference to say that they're more than satisfied with our progress... and nobody [in the media] said anything about it.

Service Standards
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Suppose that you're able to either achieve a better budget or a different fare in the future. Would you accept or recommend some kind of incentive system, so that Muni is rewarded for either providing more service or for meeting performance standards?

I think that Muni is so far behind on the budget curve that you don't want to make it all up in one year. I think that you feed money into the system over a certain period of time, and the only way to do that fairly for the public and for the organization is say: "Fine, we're going to give you this much money, what are you going to do with it..... Before you get your second installment, we want to see a reduction in missed runs; we want to see a reduction in vacancy; we want to see in increase in street inspection, we want to see an increase in training."

So there need to be physically measurable criteria that say, "OK Muni, here's your report card. You did maybe three of the five things, so you're not going to get your raise until you finish all five. Then when you finish all five, then the second installment comes in." That way the public knows exactly what they're going to be getting for their first chunk of money, and the department knows it's not going to get its second chunk until it makes good on the first chunk.

Have you set criteria like that?

Well, the internal budget process works very differently.... It's justified by how it is spent by line item, rather than what you actually get out of it.

Come a year from now, what should the public be getting for the 17 million? Specifically what can we expect?

A reduction of vacancy rate, which means more operators to fill missed runs. Today at the peak hours... we probably miss about 80 runs a day....

Out of?

Out of about 1450-1500 runs, something like that. So we're running around 4% missed runs. We're trying to get that number down through hiring of operators, which would then translate into fewer missed runs....

Two percent, maybe?

Well, I think we're going to get to 3% this summer, but then we'll have the new hiring plan in place which will help us get to 2 percent maybe by a year from now....

So the criterion is missed runs, that we should be watching out for?

Well, that's the way we can measure it. The public in my view doesn't care about issues of missed runs or anything else. They just want to know they're going to get to their bus stop and there'll be a vehicle there within 10 minutes....

Do you have a target for the on-time rate that we can expect in the next year or so? The transit plan of 1995, which is the most recent, had something like 53%, which is quite low.

It's not up to us. You know that many freeways have been torn down and that traffic has moved onto the streets. And so a 38-Geary, trying to get through that section between Van Ness and Market at 4:30, is held captive to the traffic, and so on-time performance is a harder thing to attack, and really needs to be addressed on a city-wide basis....

It's due entirely to the freeway construction? Or is it traffic in general?

The number of vehicles on city streets has increased in the last five years.

How does that affect the Metro?

Well, it doesn't affect the Metro as much as the bus service..... Once it gets into the tunnel, no problems....

Problems With the Metro
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Well, we all know that the Metro doesn't work.

Well, it doesn't work today for a multitude of reasons. The number-one reason being Boeings, which break down at a rate of 30-35% on a daily basis.... That's why the Bredas need to come in; that's why the Bredas bring a higher reliability in the fleet. ATCS will be, just as far as I'm concerned, gravy on top of the turkey because that will allow us faster service....

There are certain things that could be done now on the Metro prior to the ATCS to really make better use of the Boeings. Just this morning, there were two Ks in a row, then a packed M car, then a few cars later came an L.

There's two reasons for that and one is dispatching personnel - street inspectors. Muni, when it was running fine and everybody liked it, had 100 street inspectors. When I got here, it had 60. That's a 40% reduction in the life-line of the street service. What deals with the changes in the street, what watches over the operators to make sure they're doing the right thing? In my view, a great contributor to the safety problems we've recently experienced.

The second thing, quite honestly, has been our ability to control, to pass knowledge, and then redirect. Walk into Muni's [control center] and you'll think you've walked into somebody's garage. You've got a mimic board that has Christmas tree lights on it. You've got a cramped quarters. They don't even know if it's raining when they're in there. There's not a window anywhere.... The computer system is extremely antiquated, which is why ATCS is necessary.

I could go on and on about ATCS. I think the city bought something way over their heads eight years ago, got sold a bill of goods, and we're still paying for it. We should have just gone for what was then state-of-the-art instead of what didn't exist. But Central Control is a key part of making daily service happen.... When you're trying to run everything on a shoestring, it's hard to tell your operator the information they need to know so they can turn around and pass it on to the patron.

Making the Schedule Realistic
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Clearly the schedule that the city has had for a long time is not realistic today. Are you still thinking about doing the revision to make it realistic?

I think that rather than diverting the resources into redoing the schedule and the political fight involved with that, I'd rather devote all my resources into trying to make that schedule.

If you hadn't gotten the 17 million, would you have?

Yes. If I hadn't gotten the 17 million, I definitely would have had to revisit that schedule.... I would have literally gone to the Supervisors and said, "If I do not get this money, you are tacitly giving me permission to change the schedule." But having gotten the 17 million, which is not enough to get there but is a big step in the right direction, I'd rather keep fighting for the money that is necessary to get there rather than give up the objective.

And you feel that's realistic in the next couple of years?

Yes... with the same type of increases in funding that we've seen and, in the years after that, seeing continued improvement in the accessories - the courteous operator, the available public information, things that really make a difference between an adequate service and a good service.

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You've talked in public a couple times about fares and about how you had some interest in changing the fare structure. Is that still on your list, and if so, how would you do it and how do you make sure that the public gets its money's worth?

I'm still, personally, and I speak for me, interested in the fare issue, and in what I believe to be an appropriate fare for the service. [W]hen you talk service in this city, everybody only talks about the issue of timeliness. Nobody ever talks about the issue of range of services, because everybody takes that for granted.... Ninety-five percent of the residents of this city live within 2 1/2 blocks of a Muni line. You will not get that anywhere else in this country.... So the money that we have goes into that, at the cost of timeliness.

Life at the Top
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We know that it's been frustrating for you to come into Muni, which has been in big trouble for a long time, and try to turn it around in a relatively short amount of time. What do you think has made it difficult for you to get what you'd like done? And do you think the mayor has been helpful?

I think the mayor has been 100% supportive. He does not always know the details, nor does he get himself that personally involved, and quite honestly the reason is that he has confidence that I'm doing the job. I can pick up the phone and talk to the Mayor at any time; I can get a meeting with the Mayor at any time, and when I need to, I do. And I meet with him probably on an average of every three weeks. Lately it's been every single week.

The frustrations come from the polar positioning that on one side it takes a lot of time and effort to make changes. A perfect example of that is the new civil-service list that we gave and spent 12 months waiting to take advantage of it. Then the polar opposite is the public that wants to see a change immediately and is understandably frustrated, because they've been dealing with a declining Muni now for over a decade. And finally they've got somebody here that's paying attention and trying to do things, and so I'm being bombarded with, "OK, why haven't you done it yet?"

The lack of knowledge of what it takes to turn around - if you take an organization of 3,500 employees, it takes a long time to change it. You make that a public agency subject to an antiquated Charter and an antiquated civil-service system and it's that much longer. So my frustrations are the push-pull of, on one end, fighting like hell to make things happen that I'd like to see happen in seven days that take seven months, and on the other end, everybody's screaming, "Why wasn't it done in seven hours instead of seven days?" It takes a huge toll.

Do you find you have to come in on the weekends to get things done?

I work seven days a week.

How many hours do you think you total?

On an average week I'll do about 70 hours. Some weeks more, some weeks a little less. A perfect example was this past weekend. Because we've got so many things going on, I woke up at 3:30 in the morning. I couldn't sleep - there were too many things on my mind. So I threw on a pair of sweats and came to work. And I was here from 3:30 to 7:30 in the morning, and then I went to the gym to get a workout....

It's a 24-hour, 7-day operation, and the pager is on 24 hours a day and goes off 18 to 19 of those 24 hours a day... It's tough because the industry is also such that if you go to your bus stop and a vehicle gets there in 3 minutes, and the operator is courteous, and your ride is safe, and you get to where you're going, you don't say anything. That is expected. But the moment any one of those things doesn't happen you now have reason to complain. So our industry is the type that if you do absolutely everything right, you don't get praise. But the moment you do something wrong, you get criticism....

San Francisco people tend to be a little more vocal, a little more critical, a little more impatient. And I think again they tend not to look at what they do have. ... I can recognize people who've lived here all their lives have a higher frustration because of what Muni used to be, but hey, Muni's budget's been cut by $30 million over the last 15 years, so everybody who's lived here has either let it happen or ignored the fact that it's happening. ... Everybody has the right to criticize, and most people do exercise that right, but they also need to take the responsibility of making sure that we're doing the right things to fund the organization.

Do you expect all your managers to be riding on the system, even off peak, on and off hours?

Yes. I do. In fact I told all my deputies that they should be riding the system at least once a week. For me the most convenient one is the 38, which when I've got meetings downtown beats the hell out of driving.

That's why we use it.

I don't live close to a Metro line, otherwise I would take more advantage of that. I happen to live in one of the parts of the city that's kind of on the outskirts, so it doesn't have too many major feeders.

Do you feel an improvement on the street when you ride? You've been riding the 38 now for a year and a half.

It's not fair to ask me that, because I get great service. I mean, I walk on, and the operator says, "Good morning, how are you?" and calls every stop while I'm there. People say, you should ride Muni, you should know what we experience. Well, it's not going to happen, because every single ride I have is perfect. So if you're looking for me to get a fair benchmark, it's not going to happen.

What motivates you to do a good job, personally?

It's just my own integrity. I've been fortunate - I got frustrated very early on working for the city, and I said, OK, as soon as I get bored, I'm out of here. And where I've been fortunate is that whenever I've been in a job and started to get bored with it, started to get frustrated with it, another opportunity has arisen. And I think that I'm very much not the normal city employee, that I've been willing to take on different jobs and move around a lot more than most city employees....

Do you think that's going to happen with Muni? Do you think you'll either get bored or get so frustrated that you can't stay?

Yes. Well, one of two things are going to happen. I won't get bored here, that's for sure. I will either get frustrated and leave or I will actually see this thing through to the point where it's moving well. And then once it's moving well, I'll go on looking for my next challenge.

So does that mean if you leave Muni next year, that's a bad sign for Muni - that you've become so frustrated that you just couldn't take it anymore?

Yes, I think.... I originally identified a 24-month plan, and I'm almost 18 months into it, which means I've got at least six months to see the original plan through. And then I would say six months after that to get to the point where things are cruising. I'll be perfectly honest with the Mayor and the public as to the reasons why I'm leaving, whether they be frustration or comfort that things are moving fine. If I left today, it would be purely out of frustration....

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Suppose that you left out of frustration. I think the public would conclude that Muni today can't be fixed, and that some more radical change would need to be made. If so, what? For example, creating a Transportation Authority?

I think if you make a significant effort today to create a separate entity, you're going to spend the next 24 months focusing on what that entity looks like, creating a purchasing department, creating a personnel division, creating all these things that don't exist today within Muni - instead of focusing on the service. Maybe long-term that's the answer, but while right now we're focusing 100% on service, I believe the focus should stay on service and not on politics....

Recruiting and Salary
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I use this phrase over and over - you get what you pay for. That relates to service; that also relates to your managers.... The general manager of Muni, under the old administration that set this up, gets paid a full 20% less than the head of Public Works, which is a smaller department; the head of the Port, which is a smaller department; the head of the PUC, which is a smaller department.... And then you compare it across the country - it's a full $35-40K less than the head of New Jersey, New York, Atlanta, Washington, Chicago, Los Angeles. So how do you expect to recruit a top-caliber person in the industry?

Have you had any particular people you've tried to recruit and they went elsewhere?

Oh, yeah, absolutely.... That's how I wound up over here. Because I'm young, I don't have the years in, so for me the salary was no issue. I've got plenty of time ahead of me to make money. I had no transit background. So in my view that hasn't hampered me at all, but obviously if you want to recruit a senior manager with 10, 15 years of experience, with the know-how to turn around agencies, the know-how to deal with the unions and all that stuff, you've got to address the issues of a package that is actually going to lure somebody over. And I think that this mayor understands that....

He'll up the salary for top people?


Has he offered to up your salary?

Actually, he just brought that up recently, so we'll see what happens.

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