On November 2, 1999, all was sweetness and light at the headquarters of the Regional Transportation District. After years of crushing defeats and internecine warfare among the agency's elected board of directors, RTD finally managed to win strong voter approval for its plan to borrow $457 million to build a light-rail line through southeast Denver.
The celebration lasted a good five minutes. Then it was back to squabbling as usual.
Less than a month after the victory, two of the board's dwindling number of light-rail critics, Dick Sargent and Alan Fleming, abruptly resigned. And last week, boardmembers Jack McCroskey and Gloria Holliday filed a lawsuit against RTD, claiming that agency staff and leadership had violated their rights to free speech by refusing to distribute letters and memos they'd written.
McCroskey has frequently been criticized by other boardmembers for his public dustups with senior staffers and his long-running feud with RTD general manager Cal Marsella (Divide the Ride," October 23, 1997); Holliday's had her share of sharp words with her colleagues, too. But since Robert Tonsing was elected board chairman earlier this year, McCroskey says, Tonsing and executive assistant Brenda Bergman have refused dozens of McCroskey's requests to have memos typed and distributed by RTD staff, including a few co-authored by Holliday.
Tonsing, who's also admonished McCroskey for his "verbal abuse" and "uncivil behavior" during board meetings, has said he's under no obligation to devote staff time or resources to his opponent's broadsides. McCroskey concedes that he could have his missives typed and mailed outside the agency, but he maintains that the policy amounts to muzzling a dissenting viewpoint on the board.
"He's right to say that if I want to spend the money and an inordinate amount of time, I could do it myself," McCroskey says. "But he did silence me to a great extent. The fact is, if I was saying nice things about everybody, he'd let me do it. To me, that's censorship."
Although his attacks on Tonsing and Marsella clearly have their personal side, many of McCroskey's rejected memos also raise questions about RTD policy and the use of public funds. For example, one missive Bergman refused to process last spring was a letter to Governor Bill Owens stating a belief that RTD could raise local funding toward the light-rail line without state assistance; at a subsequent board meeting, Tonsing chastised McCroskey for taking a position "contrary to board policy." Yet the proposal RTD sent to the voters adopted much the same position as the letter to Owens.
Other notable skirmishes between McCroskey and his censors:
Aug. 9. Memo to RTD board of directors: "Ms. Brenda Bergman and members of her staff have ransacked my office many times, taking everything from tall stacks of files down to bits and pieces and partly finished investigative work. Much of this material related to GM Marsella's out-of-town travel, which I believe to be excessive but can't conclusively prove since the forementioned depredations...Frankly, there is so much silly stuff going on around RTD these days, it's becoming quite difficult to winnow the simply silly from the destructively silly." (Written in response to a memo from Bergman complaining that a boardmember -- i.e., McCroskey -- removed a document from her office written by Tonsing.)
Sept. 7. Letter to the Editor, Denver Post: "Regarding RTD GM Cal Marsella's letter of September 6...using government resources to electioneer is an egregious offense -- to both state law and public morality." (Note from Brenda Bergman: "If you want to take out last paragraph, I will type. Otherwise, you have unfounded accusations of electioneering.")
Sept. 16. Letter to state senator John Andrews: "Cal Marsella said borrowing [to build light rail] would 'cause financial bankruptcy' -- a claim that brings to mind some good old words from WW II, such as 'slacker' and 'goldbrick.'" (This letter was typed by RTD staff.)
Sept. 21. Memo to Cal Marsella: "Please accept this memo as my formal request for your resignation as RTD general manager. Your prompt attention here will, I am confident, result in the betterment of all those concerned." (Memo to McCroskey from Tonsing: "The letter you have requested staff to prepare is filled with innuendo from start to finish.")
Sept. 23. Memo to RTD Board on the hiring of assistant general manager John Claflin: "Claflin is to help Marsella do exactly what? Help him put together privatization contracts that even a low-watt intelligence would know couldn't be fulfilled?" (Note from Brenda Bergman: "I can't type this because of the name calling.")
Undated (late Sept.?). Letter to Westword regarding light-rail bond contracts. "If we win [light-rail election], Tonsing/ Marsella will move fast to get contracts to friends -- although other bids are cheaper and better. A lotta money here." (Bergman: "I won't type this because of the slanderous comments directed to the GM and the chairman.")
Nov. 2. Memo to RTD Board, RTD Staff, RTD Voters: "GM Marsella has wasted public time and money in working in favor of non-doable projects and against doable ones. GM Marsella lies repeatedly about board members (yours truly in particular)...All of us need a new general manager." (Note from Bergman: "I won't type this due to personal attacks on Cal.")
Nov. 8. Memo from McCroskey and Holliday to Tonsing: "This is just a note to let you know that your failure to admit the key role we both played in the light-rail victory should be added to the long list of 'Spectacularly Crass Things Bob Tonsing Has Done As Board Member and Chairman'...Also, you probably don't understand that your staff-promoting ugliness here generates inefficiencies overall and breeds contempt for the board." (Bergman: "I won't type due to unfounded allegations.")
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Nov. 10. Memo from McCroskey and Holliday to RTD Board on possible award of light-rail bond contracts: "In our opinion this is a political award. Why did Gov. Romer intervene for highway bonds when he opposed it in 1997? Is the reason that his son Chris Romer works at [bond firm] Geo. K. Baum and stands to make a huge amount of money?" (Bergman: "unfounded accusations.")
Nov. 12. Memo to Tonsing on possible conflicts of interest of boardmembers: "Directors [Karen] Benker and [Rick] Garcia were appointed to state jobs by Governor Roy Romer. They have since changed to classified service...In my opinion both Director Benker and Director Garcia are receiving two state checks illegally." (Bergman: "unfounded accusations.")
Coming on the heels of the departure of Fleming and Sargent, the McCroskey-Holliday lawsuit is another reminder that the transit agency's leadership is still at war with itself, even with a half-billion- dollar rail project on the line. Or, as McCroskey wrote in one of his rejected memos: "Something terribly sad is happening here at RTD. You smell it, you feel it -- and on rare occasions, you even see it."