RTD board makes hiring of new leader official with contract vote

The Regional Transportation District’s new leader said after her five-year contract won board approval Tuesday that she looked forward to guiding the troubled agency through its significant challenges.

Debra Johnson, set to start work Nov. 9, is an industry veteran who is wrapping up her role as deputy CEO at Long Beach Transit in Southern California. Her salary will start at $315,000 a year, with annual cost-of-living increases.

She takes over as RTD’s first female CEO and general manager at a perilous time for the metro Denver agency. Like most transit providers, RTD faces a severe, pandemic-induced drop in ridership and deep budget troubles — likely to require hundreds of layoffs soon — while it also looks to chart out a long-term plan for its future.

“I am a fervent believer that challenges are coupled with opportunities, and we work cooperatively and collaboratively to identify those opportunities,” Johnson told the board. She joined its remote meeting by phone after the 13-1 vote to approve her contract.

She said she planned to seize a chance to show solidarity with employees on RTD’s management side who, in addition to potential layoffs, may also face salary cuts next year. The scope hasn’t been decided yet.

“I will stand with the men and women of this organization and have my salary temporarily adjusted as we navigate the year ahead,” Johnson said.

Her starting salary is slightly higher than the $299,000 final salary for RTD’s last CEO, Dave Genova, who retired in January. Voting no on the contract was Director Natalie Menten, who has protested high executive salaries.

The Denver Post reported the major terms of Johnson’s contract, which the board had attempted to keep confidential before the vote, in a story Saturday.

Besides her salary, Johnson will receive a pension contribution valued at $25,650 a year, along with more than six weeks of paid vacation annually. She also could receive performance-based incentives or pay raises under an evaluation program the board must establish during her first four months on the job.

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