Unfinished Business

Keeping track of the political--and personal--agendas at stake in RTD board races.

"This is just horse manure," he says. "He says he led the fight to get $120 million, but they didn't get $120 million. What they did get, in four years, is a million and a half--and they probably spent more than that on lobbyists to get it. He has not built an inch of track beyond what was already under way when he got there."

The Bureaucrat and the Tooth Fairy
Another key race in RTD's district M (Lakewood and parts of Wheat Ridge) pits incumbent Karen Benker--who, with Anderson, has led the fight for the Littleton line--against college student William McCullough and geophysicist David Zimmerman, both of whom support the southwest route, and engineer Robert Steele, who says he endorses light rail in principle but has serious reservations about the "quality of leadership" on the board.

Steele's wife, Helen, was a boardmember for eight years, until Benker won the seat four years ago. He admits his wife played no small part in getting him to run. "One morning there was a petition on the table at breakfast, and she said the tooth fairy put it there," he recalls. "I realized I might lose my teeth if I didn't run."

Steele says he's fed up with the "petty, childish bickering" of the board and blasts what he calls "the Romer contingent" of bureaucrats at the agency, including Benker (who works in the governor's budget office) and CDOT analyst Anderson. He wants to see a public referendum on the future of light rail and a more "professional," less politically motivated board of directors at RTD.

"The governor's office took a heavy hand in the election four years ago," Steele says. "I don't think he really believes in representative government. The result is that we're blowing our opportunity and fouling our home."

Benker, though, denies any conflict between her work in the governor's office and her position as a boardmember; both she and Anderson say they use their own vacation and personal leaves, rather than state time, to perform their duties as $250-a-month RTD officials.

"When I was first elected, I had a meeting with the governor," Benker explains. "It was very clear that he would never influence my vote on RTD matters. We've probably chatted three times about RTD in the past four years."

Benker insists the present board has been highly productive, in terms of both advancing light-rail plans and improving bus services. She stresses that she has the experience to deal with future planning decisions that could be quite contentious. "The real question is, how hard will the board work to implement its plans? I'm not only going to vote for the projects that make sense, I'm going to work hard to see that they succeed."

Rosemary's Hubby
Perhaps the most intriguing candidate for the board is Rosemary Paolillo, who is running unopposed for the Aurora seat now held by light-rail opponent Dave Bishop. Paolillo worked in customer services for RTD for six years, and her husband, Robert, is employed there as an equipment maintenance supervisor. A spokesman for the agency declines to comment on whether Paolillo's termination was voluntary or not; Paolillo will say only that she had "philosophical differences as to the way things should be done" in her department.

The lack of an opponent means that Paolillo will almost certainly be the first elected boardmember who has a spouse on RTD's staff, prompting some observers to wonder if she might have to recuse herself on numerous issues to avoid a potential conflict of interest. But Paolillo doesn't see a problem, since her husband is not a member of the union and would not be affected by many staffing issues that come before the board. "I would abstain from voting on his salary, but that's it," she says.

In the past, members of the RTD board have been accused of meddling mightily in staff matters, pressuring senior officials to hire or promote certain individuals or to award lucrative consulting contracts to close associates. Paolillo, though, says she's more interested in working closely with local government to secure better transit services in Aurora than she is in changing the way things are done at RTD.

"We have a general manager who knows how to run a bus company," she says. "My job is to make sure that our community gets the services they deserve."

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