Capital Metro board member Beverly Silas resigned Tuesday amid the controversy over her recently reported remarks that she would oppose hiring an African-American to lead the transit agency “because of where Austin is” with race relations.
She announced her decision at the Travis County Commissioners Court meeting.
“I do not want to harm the agency in its search for a new CEO or make it more difficult for Capital Metro to move forward,” Silas told the court, which had appointed her to the eight-member transit board where she served as vice chair. “I most humbly apologize to the community, to you, the Travis County Commissioners Court, the Capital Metro board, and to the entire Capital Metro organization for my words. They did not reflect what was and is in my heart.”
Silas, who is African-American and has served on the Capital Metro board since 2010, last week had clarified her remarks to the American-Statesman, saying she meant to express concern about the environment in Austin for past African-American civic leaders. She said it was not her intention to say she would oppose selecting a black man or woman to replace agency CEO and President Linda Watson, who is retiring in December.
“What my heart was saying last month is both obvious and too easily forgotten: It is hard being African-American in Austin,” Silas said in a commentary submitted in late September to the American-Statesman. “Sometimes, we become invisible. At others, we may be criticized before we get off the plane to simply start a new job — just ask Charlie Strong.”
Strong, the University of Texas football coach from 2014 to 2016, had to deal early on with remarks by prominent Longhorns booster Red McCombs, who told a reporter that the new hire would be a good assistant coach but was not necessarily qualified for the top job.
Silas’ original comments came during an Aug. 9 Capital Metro board discussion on the criteria for hiring a new agency CEO and president. In that meeting, Silas recalled a conversation she had in 2010 with Robert Goode, an Austin assistant city manager who was serving with her on an oversight committee for the search that resulted in Watson being hired.
“One of the things I told him,” Silas said to her fellow board members in August, “was that I would be definitely opposed to an African-American male coming into this role. And he looked at me and said, ‘Why?’ I said, ‘Because Austin is not the place for them. They would have a very difficult time. I would also be hesitant for an African-American female, not as much as a male. But they’re going to have a hard time here in the city just because of where Austin is, period.’ ”
Travis County commissioners appointed Silas, who owns a public relations firm, to the Capital Metro board for a three-year term that runs through May 2018. As word spread last week of Silas’ comments, Travis County Commissioner Brigid Shea recommended discussing whether to keep Silas on the transit board.
Nelson Linder, president of the Austin NAACP for the past 18 years, said he had talked to Silas on Saturday about the situation and she told him then that she planned to step down.
“She understood she made a terrible mistake, and there’s no way to fix that,” he said.
As news broke last week of Silas’ August comments, Linder had pointed out that African-Americans hold or have held significant civic leadership posts in Austin, sometimes for lengthy tenures. Marc Ott was Austin city manager for eight years, Sam Biscoe was Travis County judge for 16 years, Greg Hamilton was Travis County sheriff for eight years, and Meria Carstarphen led the Austin school district for five years. Ashby Johnson since July 2014 has been the executive director of the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization, the area’s primary transportation planning agency.
But Linder said Silas has a valid point that Austin needs work on alleviating the effects of racial discrimination. As for Capital Metro, he said he and other activist groups are already involved in the choice before the Commissioners Court as it ponders a short-term replacement for Silas, who was the only African-American on the eight-member transit board.
The board in November will consider a revamping of its bus routes that, as currently proposed, would emphasize bus frequency rather than broad route coverage — which would mean dropping service from some areas. The board is trying to arrest a several-year slide in ridership.
And, of course, Capital Metro has the CEO-president choice before it, and the board is scheduled to select finalists by year’s end and make a final choice by the end of January. Members are not paid for their service on the volunteer board, other than for expenses.
“We need someone who is really involved with the community” as Silas’ replacement, Linder said. “We need to make sure this is not just business as usual. Capital Metro is set up to serve all of Austin.”
Wade Cooper, an Austin lawyer who chairs the Capital Metro board, said Silas had been a strong advocate for Capital Metro employees, often showing up at worker events when no other board member did.
“Her voice will certainly be missed,” Cooper said. “This seems like a sad way for her role to come to an end.”
As for the critical choices looming for the board, and Silas’ departure, Cooper said, “The timing is not the best, obviously.”
“Hopefully the Commissioners Court will find us a great replacement candidate,” he said. “But in the meantime, we have to keep doing our job. I don’t expect it will be a major obstacle.”