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Updated: Racially tinged comments spark controversy for Capital Metro’s vice chair

Thursday, September 28, 2017 by Caleb Pritchard

Update: Beverly Silas, vice chair of the Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority board of directors told the Travis County Commissioners Court on Tuesday morning that she is resigning.

“I most humbly apologize to the community, to you the Travis County Commissioners Court, to 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 told the Court during the regularly scheduled public communications portion of the meeting.

“There will always be a bus-train-BRT-shaped spot in my heart,” concluded Silas, before Judge Sarah Eckhardt thanked her for her service and she left to warm applause from the audience inside the court chambers.

Silas found herself in the hot-seat after activist Zenobia Joseph highlighted comments the eight-year board veteran made during a work session in August. Silas, who is African-Amercian, indicated that she would not be interested in hiring an African-American man as a replacement for outgoing President and CEO Linda Watson. On Monday evening, the Austin-American Statesman published an op-ed explaining her remarks.

She wrote: “As an African-American woman who’s lived 45 years in Austin, I thought about some of the experiences I’ve had — and my friends and family members have had — and the history and interactions that can make Austin a uniquely difficult place for black men and women to call home. I thought about the challenges that even an accomplished top-level executive would encounter as an African-American coming to this community.

“These were feelings as much as thoughts. I tried to put them into words — and I failed, implying that the search committee should steer clear of recruiting someone who might find Austin’s history and dynamics too challenging. My words did not come out well. I shouldn’t have said what I said — or in the context in which I did. I am extremely sorry for that.”

Silas also serves on the City of Austin’s Urban Transportation Commission. It remains unclear if she will give up that seat as well.

Travis County’s appointee to the Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s Board of Directors has landed in hot water over remarks she made at a board work session in August.

During that work session, the board discussed with consultant Gregg Moser of Krauthamer & Associates the desired qualifications for candidates seeking to replace outgoing President and CEO Linda Watson.

Vice Chair Beverly Silas, whom the Commissioners Court originally appointed in 2009, recounted what she told Assistant City Manager Robert Goode during the search that ultimately led to Watson taking leadership of the transit agency.

“One of the things that I told him was that I would be definitely opposed to an African-American male coming into this role,” she said. “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.’”

That recounting by Silas, who is African-American, went unremarked upon by her colleagues for more than an hour. However, toward the end of the meeting, Council Member Delia Garza asked Silas if she still holds the same feelings.

Silas responded, “Yes, I do.”

“For the record,” Garza replied, “I would say that I would welcome any candidate and I think diversity would be great, and I would not exclude any race or gender from the search.”

Silas declined to elaborate on her remarks during a phone call with the Austin Monitor on Wednesday.

The details of the Aug. 9 work session were amplified over the weekend by activist Zenobia Joseph, who announced in an email addressed to multiple officials and media outlets that she had filed a Title VI complaint under the Civil Rights Act of 1964 requesting the Federal Transit Administration suspend its funding of Capital Metro while Silas remains on the board.

Beverly Silas

In addition to being an executive committee member of the American Public Transportation Association – which is also currently looking for a CEO – Silas sits on the city’s Urban Transportation Commission and runs a public involvement consulting firm that has worked on multiple transportation projects in the region.

In her email, Joseph said that Silas “receives an undisclosed amount of contracts through AECOM,” the consultant helping Capital Metro on its Project Connect effort. On Wednesday, Silas told the Monitor that she currently has no active contracts with AECOM.

“That’s illegal for me to work on a Capital Metro project,” she pointed out.

Joseph also brought her concerns to the Commissioners Court during the public communications portion of Tuesday’s regular voting session. She noted that Silas’ term ends in May 2018, five months after the Capital Metro board is expected to make a decision on Watson’s replacement.

“And if in fact you choose not to take any action, you too become complicit in the discrimination,” Joseph told the court. “It is in opposition to your vision, your goals and the things that you say you believe in. So I’m simply asking you to be courageous enough to not just talk about anti-discrimination but take appropriate steps as a court and vote to remove Ms. Silas from the Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority board.”

After County Judge Sarah Eckhardt thanked Joseph for bringing the matter to the court’s attention, Commissioner Brigid Shea said, “I want to say for the record, I’m not willing to wait until May. I think these are serious issues and I would ask we bring it up sooner, as soon as possible.”

Commissioner Jeff Travillion, the court’s lone African-American, told the Monitor that he watched a recording of the work session.

“And that was a difficult tape for me to listen to because I do respect her,” Travillion said. He explained that he has known Silas for 20 years and wants to have a personal conversation with her before he renders any judgment.

He also conceded part of Silas’ point: that racism has played a profound role throughout Austin’s history and that the city continues to grapple with the problem today.

However, he added, “That does not lead me to the conclusion that if there is difficulty we should avoid it. If it is difficult, we should address it.”

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