After a curious three-month hiatus, BART's Chief Spokesman, Linton Johnson, is back today -- but he has a new desk and a different title.
The veteran spokesman has been reassigned to work on special projects while still bringing home the $170,000 pay package he made as BART's senior flack, according to board members. BART officials say the move was not punishment for the Aug. 11 controversy where Johnson initiated a systemwide shutdown of cellphone service to thwart a planned protest.
Calls to Johnson have not been answered.
However, inside sources at BART told us that Johnson -- who initially went on leave for personal reasons -- is not exactly happy about the shakeup.
Bob Franklin, president of the BART Board of Directors, told SF Weekly that he wasn't surprised by the move. However, he put a positive spin on it, saying the mutually agreed upon change was done because Johnson is a leader at rolling out technological innovations at BART.
"Linton has been on-call 24/7, so it was taking its toll," Franklin said. "He will still be in the communications department, but not in front of the camera."
But the timing of this shakeup is too coincidental. Johnson became the scapegoat for BART after the agency made some "bonehead" decisions on how to handle protests in response to the shooting death of Charles Hill. BART police shot and killed Hill, a 45-year-old transient, on July 3, claiming he had threatened them with knives.
But in August, when protesters had organized a mass demonstration to halt BART trains in the evening commute, Johnson had the idea to cut wireless service in BART stations to hinder protesters from coordinating. He was also criticized for organizing loyal BART riders to show up at a press conference to give the agency good press. He reportedly rented SUVs to transport those riders. This drama was capped off with lewd photos of Johnson that Anonymous circulated online.
Needless to say, it became obvious that BART wasn't eager for Johnson to get back to his job as the main mouthpiece for the agency; he remained on leave long after he was due back in early September.
"I think it's the best thing for BART and for Linton right now," Franklin told us."His job description is changing, but I don't think his work ethic will change."