Leadership change at Metro Transit

For the first time in 15 years, there will be a new manager in charge of the region’s bus, train and light rail system.

New Metropolitan Council Chair Nora Slawik announced Jan. 14 she would not reappoint Brian Lamb general manager of Metro Transit, a department of the regional planning organization that he had led since 2004. Slawik’s pick to replace Lamb was Wes Kooistra, who most recently served as Met Council’s regional administrator.

“While we welcome Wes, we cannot forget the hard work and many successes of Brian Lamb,” Council Member Deb Barber said in comments delivered at the end of the Jan. 14 Met Council Transportation Committee meeting. “Brian brought a perfect mix of passion, knowledge and leadership to his long career at Metro Transit. He oversaw an organization that was recognized as Transit System of the Year in 2016. He will be missed by all.”

Both the Metro Green Line light-rail transit route and the A Line rapid bus service opened during Lamb’s tenure. He led the department as plans for the Southwest and Bottineau light-rail line extensions were developed.

Lamb was not in attendance at the Transportation Committee meeting. Attempts to reach him for comment in the days after the announcement were not successful.

Met Council Communications Director Kate Brickman said she couldn’t speak for Lamb but added it was her understanding his final day at Metro Transit would come at the end of January.

Lamb’s sudden ouster raised questions for some, including Aaron Isaacs, a retired facilities planning manager for Metro Transit who in a post written for the website streets.mn described Slawik’s decision as “incredibly stupid.”

Isaacs, who started at Metro Transit in 1973, was both a coworker to Lamb and, for several years in the 1980s, his supervisor. He retired in 2006, two years after Lamb returned to Metro Transit as general manager.

“He was extremely good at his job,” Isaacs said in an interview that took place two days after the decision was announced, describing Lamb as a “self-taught” transit expert who “learned all the nuts and bolts of the organization” on the job.

“What Brian did do was to build up a very good staff of knowledgeable, capable people, and that momentum is going to go on for a while,” Isaac said. “Whoever comes in will have a hard time of reversing that quickly.”

Responding to questions about Kooistra’s experience, Brickman noted that as regional administrator he oversaw all of the work of Met Council’s transportation division. She estimated Kooistra “spent 90 percent of his time” on transit issues in his previous role.

“He is intimately familiar with everything Metro Transit does and how it’s related to the rest of organization,” she said. “… With a background in finance and policy, he’ll be able to focus on those issues full time.”

Adam Duininck, who served as Met Council chair 2015–2017, said Slawik’s decision to change things up shouldn’t be taken as “a snub” of Lamb.

“It’s more of a question of who’s a good fit, not that you can’t do the job,” Duininck said, adding that every new Met Council chair has an opportunity to evaluate the skills and leadership qualities of their deputies and “put people around you who will balance out.”

He said Kooistra had “a lot of great, diverse experience leading during tough times.”

Speaking at the Jan. 14 Transportation Committee meeting, Council Member Jennifer Munt said she had “never worked with a finer manager than Brian Lamb.”

“I will miss him,” said Munt, who represents District 3 in western Hennepin and northern Carver counties. “He earned my respect time and time again. And like I suspect his employees feel, I would walk through fire for him.”

Lamb also was praised by District 6 Council Member Gail Dorfman, who represents parts of Hennepin County, including a portion of Minneapolis.

“Being head of Metro Transit is a really big job. He did it really well,” Dorfman said. “He was respected internally and externally and across the nation for the work he did, and we will miss him here.”

Slawik plans to appoint Meredith Vadis to Kooistra’s former regional administrator position. Deputy regional administrator since 2015 and the Met Council’s communications director before that, Vadis would be the first woman to serve as regional administrator if confirmed.

Gov. Tim Walz appointed Slawik to succeed Alene Tchourumoff, who stepped down from the post Nov. 30 to take a position with the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis focused on community development and engagement. A former mayor of Maplewood and seven-term state representative, Slawik was named Walz’s pick for the Met Council in December and was sworn in Jan. 9.

Walz is expected to name 16 additional Met Council members by early March. State law sets a deadline of March 6 for their swearing in.