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Transportation Mon Aug 16 2010

Active Transportation's New Executive Director

[Editor's note: This story was submitted by freelance journalist John Greenfield.]

After a long search process, Active Transportation Alliance recently selected Ron Burke as its new executive director, replacing Rob Sadowsky who left in June to lead the Bicycle Transportation Alliance in Portland, Oregon. Burke, an expert in environmental policy comes to Active Trans, the region's advocate for better walking, biking and transit, from a job with the Union of Concerned Scientists. Before that he worked for the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency.

Ron doesn't start work at Active Trans until August 17, so is not yet giving interviews. But Active Trans board president Jane Healy, who has spearheaded Safe Routes to School initiatives in her hometown of Blue Island and is a familiar face on Chicago Critical Mass rides, agreed to talk about the appointment. She discussed why the board chose Burke from a field of more than 75 candidates, the concerns that his marriage to a current Active Trans employee might be a conflict of interest, and Healy's hopes for the future of the organization under its new E.D.

Can you tell me about Ron's background in promoting green transportation and active living initiatives?

When he worked for the American Lung Association, Ron was really key in pushing for CATS [Chicago Area Transportation Study, now called Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning, an agency which helps award grants to local transportation projects] to use some of the federal CMAQ [Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality] dollars for bike, pedestrian and transit projects, not just for car infrastructure.

Jane Healy.jpg
Active Trans board president Jane Healy and her daughter

[Active Trans co-founder and longtime executive director] Randy Neufeld was part of the second round of interviews. Randy had worked with Ron on the CMAQ stuff and said that was one of the high points of Randy's career, and that Ron had been really key for a lot of that progressive thinking. Before that people assumed people had assumed that CMAQ money was going to be used for car projects [like timing traffic lights so that cars would spend less time idling at red lights, theoretically reducing emissions.] They really had to challenge the status quo and make people think in different ways.

Any other involvement with transportation issues?

Until recently he was working at the Union of Concerned Scientists [an organization which uses scientific research to lobby for government policy changes to address pressing environmental and social problems] and he's done a lot of things to promote carbon neutrality. Some of that involves transit issues because that's a really good way to improve things on that level.

Can you tell me anything about the other candidates?

We had over 75 applications, including lots of really impressive candidates. It wasn't just [former Chicago Department of Transportation commissioner and current Active Trans board member] Cheri Heramb and myself who were vetting the candidates. We hired an outside consultant and he told us he was really surprised how good the depth of field was. He was very impressed that we had so many and that we also had a lot of diversity. We had a lot of women applying, and although you can't ask questions about [race] I would say we had quite a bit of diversity among applicants.

We narrowed it down to about 15 really stellar candidates, based on their resumes. And then we narrowed that down a little and interviewed ten people in depth. That was a phone interview process but it was a long phone interview process. Of the standout candidates there were two people who really came out as top candidates and four who came out as really good, strong candidates. For those people we pulled together the largest search committee from the board and spent several hours interviewing them.

What qualities were you looking for?

Lots of them. We were looking for someone who had developed a budget and had some experience on the fiscal end. We were looking for someone who really got our mission and our vision and who we felt would be a really good role model, who could live the life and represent the organization. We wanted someone who would be comfortable speaking before the media whether it was on the radio or on camera. We wanted someone who was a very good communicator, who could get our message out with key players and help to make change and promote our mission and our vision. Our strategic plan's really mapped out, so we wanted someone who could tie into that strategic plan and help us get to next level. Obviously someone with management skills. We've got a great staff and we don't want to lose people. We want someone who's personable and works well with others, that basic, fundamental skill that managers have to have.

What do you think Rob Sadowsky's greatest strengths were as head of Active Trans, and his greatest achievements?

Rob was an amazing strategic thinker. He was really good at looking at the long range and looking at the steps that we'd need to take to get to that long range. I think that was an amazing strength that he had.

What were some of the highlights of his tenure?

We were able to bring on a ton more staff to help achieve our goals, from 20 to 40 people. We went for some legislative wins that were really impressive, not the least of which just happened this year. They totally expanded the Safe Routes to School program, which I think was really impressive.

Ron is married to Active Trans' Near West Suburban Coordinator Pamela Brookstein, who's been on staff for 12 years. Were there any concerns about that being a conflict of interest? Or was that a positive thing to hire someone who's been involved with the organization by marriage for a long time?

We definitely took it very seriously and we were concerned about a conflict of interest. We thought it would be a very awkward situation to have an executive director who was overseeing a staff member who was his spouse. Ron did actually say, "I don't want to supervise my wife," and we didn't want him doing that. So we did put some things in place to address that issue. As it happened, Pamela wound up taking another job [working with a new Cook County Department of Health anti-obesity initiative called Communities Putting Prevention to Work] so it's a non-issue.

We also felt that it was a positive because he really does understand our mission. Pamela has been extremely successful on the West Side, working to put a lot of things in place and reaching out to communities. And Ron really gets bicycle and pedestrian and transit issues since Pamela's been working on them for years. He understood about Open Streets [a program that shut down a street network for car-free recreation], he knew about the expansion of our mission, he really understood that.

What are the challenges ahead as Ron takes this job, and what are your goals for the future of the organization?

I don't have a lot of worries. I think Ron is eminently qualified. He came through with amazing recommendations, he was so impressive in the interview process and he's a very personable person.

We have a very clearly-defined strategic plan — it's aggressive. So I think my only fear is that he's going to come in and be overwhelmed by how aggressive that strategic plan is. But I think he's up to the challenge. We need someone who's really willing to take the bull by the horns and make change and Ron's that guy. He's going to hit the ground running. He's already had a ton of experience with other organizations and I think he's really ready to push us to that next level.

What are a few of the highlights of the strategic plan for the next few years?

Our goal is that we're going to make major strides in changing how people get around the Chicago region. I hope we can get that 50 percent pedestrian, bicycle and transit mode share, I hope we can get that 50 percent reduction in crashes that the plan calls for. It's a public health issue that needs to be addressed.

Anything else you'd like to tell me?

I really think we got a phenomenal candidate and I was so pleased that we were able to find such a qualified person to step up to the plate. We're a non-profit so there's not big bucks in this. And there's always the fear that you're not going to get qualified people because you're not offering some huge salary. I was so impressed with the applications we got, so it was really nice to feel like you were making a discernment between highly-qualified candidates.

I really think Ron is going to be a superb leader. We have a very exciting mission — we're very ambitious with where we're going and I really want to see it happen. I think Ron's the guy to do it. 

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