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Muni Chief's "Quiet Time" 

Nat Ford to staff: Don't talk to me!

Wednesday, Sep 12 2007
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In the 18 months since Nathaniel "Nat" Ford took over the top spot at the Metropolitan Transportation Agency, he has earned a reputation for behaving a bit like a rock star, or perhaps a Hollywood prima donna. Apparently, the reputation is well deserved.

SF Weekly has learned, for instance, that early on in Ford's tenure he issued a verbal directive advising staffers that should they be fortunate enough to encounter the executive director's personage in the hallways, elevators or bathrooms, they were not to speak to him unless first spoken to. The directive was issued, according to several staffers, after Mr. Ford — as he prefers to be called — paid a visit to the bathroom and some misguided employee violated his sense of lavatory sensibilities by trying to make small talk.

MTA spokeswoman Maggie Lynch would not confirm or deny the bathroom incident, but she said that Ford has a lot of demands on his time.

"The focus of this agency is its 700,000 daily trips," Lynch says. "Mr. Ford works long hours and is very busy. Especially when someone is new, everybody wants to get to him and people were approaching Mr. Ford at inappropriate times."

Nothing says "rock celebrity" like an entourage, and Ford doesn't go anywhere without one. In fact, one member of the retinue is even designated to carry the executive director's coat should he experience any unpleasant warmth or binding.

Lynch downplayed the entourage label, but she said when Ford rides a particular bus line, he brings along the line operator and others who are responsible for maintaining service.

"He wants them to understand what their responsibilities are," Lynch says. "If he does an interview with the press, I go along with him because that's my job.

At his previous gig as head of Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority, or MARTA, Ford spent money like a rock star — an intriguing fact that has escaped the Bay Area news media's attention. After Ford's December 2005 departure, a MARTA internal auditor discovered $150,000 in charges on a pair of Transit Authority credit cards the transit board did not know existed. Apparently, between 2000 and 2005, Ford and his secretaries thought nothing of sticking Atlanta's taxpayers for about 30 grand a year in first-class travel, expensive meals and top-shelf liquors. While most of the charges, including a group trip to Las Vegas and an expensive holiday party, were classified as business related, there were numerous personal purchases: $454 at a golf pro shop, $335 at the Men's Wearhouse, and even a $58 trip to the dentist.

If there's one consolation for San Franciscans, Ford can't do the same thing here: The city doesn't give its civil servants credit cards.

One can only wonder how Ford's head might swell if voters approve Proposition A in November. The measure would give Ford and his agency more budgeting and hiring authority. Will his entourage grow to include an official parasol holder? How about a court jester? We hope Mr. Ford will still answer questions from the public ... so long as we don't ask him while he's taking a leak, of course.

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John Geluardi

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