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City manager: CATS didn't escalate 2022 derailment beyond a single, missed text message

City manager says CATS, which has been under increased transparency scrutiny, seemingly did not escalate the issue beyond a single, missed text message.

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Charlotte's city manager admitted Thursday afternoon that he inadvertently didn't see a text message from former CATS CEO John Lewis about a minor light rail train derailment incident that happened in May 2022. The incident, which was only first revealed to the public this month, has called into question the reliability and transparency of the transit agency that has been under public scrutiny for employee safety, service disruptions, and staff shortages.

City manager Marcus Jones, who was joined by interim CATS CEO Brent Cagle and city councilman Ed Driggs during a virtual briefing Thursday, said Lewis had sent him a message about the minor derailment of the LYNX Blue Line on May 21, 2022. 

No passengers or operators were injured when a middle set of wheels came off the track. Lewis told Jones in the text, which was read aloud during the briefing, that a bus bridge was in place while CATS investigated at the time.

When Jones admitted to missing the text on Thursday, he said he found the text after asking the city's information technology (IT) department to comb through his communications from that day. 

However, Jones said he did not send a response and does not recall seeing the message. He also noted that beyond that text message, CATS leadership at the time did not further escalate the incident.

TIMELINE: How CATS responded after LYNX Blue Line derailment

Jones said he felt the need to disclose the missed text message publically in an effort to rebuild trust in the transit system's transparency. He also said any disciplinary action he would face would be decided upon by the city council.

Jones believes the delayed public disclosure about the incident, which was described with the term "derailment," only created undue panic. Driggs concurred saying people he spoke with thought the city had covered up a larger incident such as the fiery train derailments recently seen in Ohio and Minnesota.

Thursday's briefing also brought with it more news about Allen Smith, the system's chief operating officer. Smith was indefinitely placed on administrative leave without pay on March 9, 2023. Jones announced that Smith has now submitted paperwork to retire from his role at the end of the month. 

Effective April 1, Smith will no longer be a city employee.

PREVIOUS STORY | City records: CATS COO recently placed on unpaid leave was also suspended in 2015 

When asked about releasing records tied to Smith's suspension, Jones said while the city is legally allowed to do so, he has seen nothing in Smith's employee files so far that is of public interest. However, as the city works to further remake the culture at CATS, he said all possibilities were open.

CATS leadership is also suspending the search for a new CEO for the next six months, meaning Cagle will remain in the role for an extended period of time. Jones said the deadline for applications passed as of Friday, March 24, 2023, but an outside recruiter had not sent in any recommendations.

RELATED: MTC votes to ask Charlotte City Council to hire consultant to investigate CATS rail operations, maintenance procedures

Cagle told WCNC Charlotte during the briefing that his background as a former operations leader at Charlotte Douglas International Airport has translated well into his time at CATS within the last 120 days, including the ongoing inquiry into the May 2022 incident. He emphasized a focus on communications within the company and said the "culture of silence" faced by employees may be a result of former leaders not listening.

The suspension in the search for a permanent CATS leader, however, will not suspend efforts to pass the proposed $13.5 billion transit plan for the system. Residents can expect continued discussion on the plan during upcoming meetings should. Among them is a 10 a.m. meeting of the city's transportation committee Monday.

Driggs, who chairs the transportation committee, said the current plans for a committee investigation involve taking stock of what's happened before mapping a path forward. He acknowledged the challenges CATS faced in recent years and committed to rebuilding public trust. 

Mecklenburg County Commissioner and member of the Metropolitan Transit Commission Leigh Altman has criticized CATS for its lack of communication and deferred maintenance. She wrote to WCNC Charlotte:

"Today's disclosures about CATS and the City Manager again demonstrate the urgency of the Metropolitan Transit Commission's unanimous vote last week to hire a third-party investigator.
I expect that today's developments would be a part of the investigation into the operational and managerial failures at issue. That investigation needs to be independent of CATS and the City of Charlotte, and the investigation needs to happen on an expedited basis.” 

RELATED: Charlotte's transit system wants your feedback

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