RTD Board Approves $315,000 Contract For New Leader

Nathaniel Minor/CPR News
An RTD N Line train at the Eastlake station in Thornton, Colorado on Thursday, Sept. 17, 2020.

Debra Johnson will be the Regional Transportation District’s next CEO and general manager after the agency’s board voted 13 to one to approve her contract on Tuesday.

Johnson will earn a salary of $315,000 and will start a five-year contract on Nov. 9, just as the RTD board approves the agency’s 2021 budget. That could include hundreds of layoffs and other cuts as RTD tries to fill a $215 million deficit.

"I am a fervent believer that challenges are coupled with opportunities,” Johnson said in brief comments to the board following the vote. 

Johnson has held senior-level positions at transit agencies in Washington, D.C., San Francisco, and Los Angeles. She will leave a post as deputy CEO of the transit agency in Long Beach, California to take over at RTD. 

Johnson’s salary is comparable with her predecessors. RTD’s outgoing interim leader, Paul Ballard, earned a $350,000 annual salary, but did not collect fringe benefits and will only serve about nine months. Former CEO Dave Genova earned about $300,000 when he retired early this year.

Pay cuts for top executives are also on the table. Johnson told the board she was willing to take a temporary salary cut. 

“She is already proving her leadership,” board member Shontel Lewis tweeted shortly after the vote.

Lewis noted that Johnson will be the first Black woman to lead RTD in its 50-year history. She said she was torn about approving Johnson’s salary given RTD’s difficult financial situation, but ultimately voted yes.

“‘My vote to approve is not because I do not see the concerns raised by the public, but I cannot in good conscience request that the first woman to lead our agency be compensated less than the men who preceded her,” Lewis said. 

The contract was negotiated behind closed doors, but board member Natalie Menten leaked the details to the Denver Post over the weekend. Menten argued that the terms had been set by then and the public deserved the right to comment before the board’s vote Tuesday. 

“I take transparency very, very seriously,” Menten said following an executive session last week. 

“It should be a fundamental goal of government.” 

Ballard, who will leave his post in November, said Johnson has impressed him “from day one.”

“I can't wait for her to get started,” he said. “She will do a fantastic job.”