Divide the Ride

Pushing a $6 billion transit plan, RTD has met the enemy-- the RTD board.

Klein's role in the debate has been a particularly slippery one. Three years ago he was one of only two dissenters on the board to oppose expansion of the current light-rail line. A few months later, after some frantic back-room politicking had secured him the board chairmanship, he became an enthusiastic backer of the expansion. Largely on the strength of his crucial "swing vote" on light-rail issues, he's been re-elected chair for two years running. ("I was the one who put together the eight votes that got him re-elected last time," Tonsing says.)

But Klein has since had a falling-out with the coalition of business and political interests that formed Transit '97 to raise money for the Guide the Ride campaign. Tonsing says the group tried to include Klein in its early strategy sessions, but the chairman's "personal animus" toward the campaign's backers got in the way.

"He declined to have any part of it," Tonsing says. "It's not a unilateral thing. He was, almost from the beginning, disparaging the leaders of Transit '97."

Klein says Transit '97 is "one of the most disturbing things I've seen since I've been in politics. I have never seen people like this come in and take over a campaign, say they'll get the contributions, and here it is. That bunch is only looking for a contract. They want to pick the pockets of the public and RTD, and I just don't want to associate with that kind of thing."

The chairman has openly questioned the motives of some major players at Transit '97, including Howard Gelt, the co-chair of the group's fundraising committee. Gelt's law firm, Sherman & Howard, has worked closely with RTD on bond issues and could gain millions if Guide the Ride passes; but Gelt also served on the board of the Transit Construction Authority several years ago, a short-lived attempt to fund transit projects without RTD's help. Klein is still seething over what he describes as the TCA's attempt "to raid the funds of RTD," as well as more recent slights, including not being invited to Transit '97 media events such as a recent "birthday party" for light rail.

"These people don't know good public relations," Klein says. "For them to treat members of the board so dirty and ignore them is ridiculous. I don't think there's a person in political office that likes to get kicked around the way Transit '97 has kicked me around."

Klein insists he's still a wholehearted supporter of Guide the Ride. When Tonsing questioned his loyalty to the cause, in light of his backing of Caldara's funding cap, Klein defended himself in a curt memo that concluded, "I hope everybody isn't relying on Transit '97 to win this election." Tonsing shot back with a blistering response that Klein promptly distributed to the rest of the board.

Tonsing took Klein to task for "your ongoing vendetta against Transit '97 in general, and Howard Gelt and the leadership of the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce in particular, over transactions that are ancient history or simply never happened. This is very destructive behavior and damages your own reputation most of all."

It didn't help matters, he added, that the chairman had used public debates over Guide the Ride to express his unhappiness with general manager Marsella and his staff. "In the past you have piously claimed that you are simply exercising your rights as an elected official, but when you were first elected chairman you tearfully promised to stop persecuting the staff," Tonsing wrote.

"Ben, you are skating on very thin ice. I have done my level best to shield you from public embarrassments instigated by those who want to bring you down, but that task is getting more and more difficult as you...regularly and publicly bully and heap insults on staff members who have no adequate way to defend themselves."

The chairman shrugs off the criticism. "They can say what they want, but my record speaks for itself," Klein snaps. "I cast the deciding vote to put Guide the Ride on the ballot. I'm more for Guide the Ride than Bob Tonsing is; he's acting like he's not even a member of the board. I figure I'm as good a political strategist as Bob Tonsing is, was, and ever will be."

Klein says that he's been "threatened" with opposition by Transit '97 supporters if he runs for re-election to the board next year and that he's heard rumors that the group was going to Denver mayor Wellington Webb trying to seek his recall as chairman. But none of the supposed threats have swayed Klein from his course.

Last month he fired off a letter to Webb's office, asking why the board hadn't been invited to an upcoming Webb press conference on Guide the Ride; mayoral spokesman Andrew Hudson (who used to work for Klein at RTD) replied that no such press conference was scheduled and that Klein should stop "spreading goofy rumors about Mayor Webb to the press." Klein has also written to Romer and state legislators opposing the appointment of RTD staffer Manuel Herrera III to a state bonding authority, arguing that Herrera has a conflict of interest because he works closely with George K. Baum, a bond company that has a contract with RTD (and which also employs Transit '97 activist Chris Romer, the governor's son). Herrera had been selected for his executive post at RTD over another applicant supported by Klein.

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