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Metro makes interim CEO Bob Baer's position permanent

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Sept. 25, 2009 - Metro, St. Louis' public transit agency, today named Bob Baer as president and CEO. Baer, who has held the position on an interim basis since Larry Salci left the position abruptly at the end of 2007, will receive $190,000 a year in salary.

Baer, who will turn 72 next month, said the board asked him to stay on after a national search launched last year failed to turn up a candidate the commissioners felt was a right fit.

"A number of candidates" emerged in the search conducted by a national search firm, and some were interviewed," Baer said. "In the final analysis, the board chose not to select any of the candidates," he added.

Following public criticism of Salci's salary and termination package, the board put several conditions on hiring a new head, most prominently limits on compensation. The board decided it would pay "under $200,000 with no bonuses in the contract and no exorbitant severance agreement," Baer said.

"We didn't want to pay an exorbitant salary," he said. "What we paid the last president was perceived as being too much."

That limited the number of candidates because many of those interested in the job were already "making that and more," Baer said.

The results of a state audit last year showed that the board awarded Salci, who earned $250,000 a year when he was terminated and a total of $160,000 in bonuses -- the maximum allowed -- from 2003 to 2007. Salci's employment agreement also gave him a generous severance package: a full year's salary; paid benefits for another year; and $4,800 for one year's auto allowance.

For their part, candidates also had their reservations about Metro. Some expressed concern over Metro's future funding, Baer added. "In fact a number of them, after discussing the matter, dropped out of consideration because we couldn't assure them of continued funding."

Service reductions also "scared off some people," he said.

"After all was said and done, the board concluded that we didn't have the right candidate," he said. "At that point, the board asked me if I would consider staying on." He said he was, and after talking with his wife, said he would "stay on for an indefinite period of time."

The board's conditions are reflected in Baer's contract.

"I have no severance in my contract, I have no bonus in my contract. It is strict salary, vacation and a car allowance. Period," he said. "So I have accepted, in effect, the parameters the board was trying to accomplish when we started this whole process."

Metro made extensive service cuts in March after St. Louis County voters failed to pass an increase in the sales tax for mass transit. Last month, thanks to emergency state funding and federal assistance, Metro restored some service. But without new sources of revenue, Metro officials warn, the restoration will end in June.

Baer said Metro's challenges are "multifold beginning with continuing with the system as best we can with the resources we have."

He also said Metro must also continue to educate the public about the importance of mass transit to the region.

"We've been working hard to rebuild our image and we will continue to do that. I think through our actions we have to prove to the community we're worthy of their support," he said.

Baer said he is optimistic that county officials will put Proposition M back on the ballot next year and the voters will then pass it.

Dianne Williams, Metro spokeswoman said the agency will announce a series of public meetings on the organization's long-range plan.

At a time in life when most people would be opting for the golf course instead of running an ailing mass transit system, Baer said, "I didn't want to walk away from something I think is critically important to the region. It's too important to let go of."

Kathie Sutin, a freelance writer in St. Louis, writes frequently about transportation.