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Back in September, Metro-obsessive and social-media personality Chris Barnes (of @FixWMATA) founded a Metro riders’ union to air customers’ grievances against the transit agency, and ultimately to advocate on their behalf in a “constructive” and “unified” manner.
Fast-forward to November, a day after Metro’s board officially confirmed Paul J. Wiedefeld as its incoming general manager, and the union is down a key leader: Barnes. On Wednesday night, Barnes, who has a sizable following of around 5,000, tweeted that he hadn’t been part of the union for more than a month, explaining to commenters that the group was no longer what he began. Shots were fired:
@zebrafinch I renounce all affiliation with them and am ashamed of what it’s become.
— FixWMATA (@FixWMATA) November 19, 2015
— FixWMATA (@FixWMATA) November 19, 2015
Reached by phone Thursday morning, Barnes said the union’s four other lead members decided he should not be the group’s leader because he was “controversial or whatever” at a Sept. 20 leadership meeting. Ashley Robbins, a transit specialist, took the helm, and remains the union’s director of development. Barnes stuck around to help plan for the union’s first public meeting on Oct. 19, held at the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library. But he says the group hasn’t been transparent about its finances and expenses until this week.
“It’s a big mess,” Barnes alleges. “Quite frankly, my biggest concern is I don’t know where the money [collected through donations from members] is going. Until last night, they weren’t showing where it was going, and I’d said before that every penny will be accounted for.”
The union currently has around 1,600 members, according to vice chair and spokesperson Graham Jenkins, who have donated about $4,500 via a GoFundMe campaign; the members come from all over the region, and so far have made just under 100 donations. (Barnes says he donated more than $1,000 out of his own pocket.) Jenkins adds that the group has spent more than $2,500 of the collections on overhead (GoFundMe fees, public-meeting expenses, and webhosting), but that the majority has gone towards getting the union nonprofit status: $2050 was spent on getting a foundation to assist in the process and on filing to become a 501(c) with the IRS. If all goes well, that will allow the union to apply for grants come next spring or summer.
As for Barnes’ departure from the group’s leadership, Jenkins says the founder and Robbins clashed over “style” and, effectively, vision: “I’d say [Robbins is] a little more long-term focused, devoted to building up relationships and our reputation, trying to coordinate with stakeholders [and] policy folks rather than solely responding to the crisis du jour.” (Barnes, by email, said that account was “accurate.”)
Barnes said his riders’-union email account has been deleted (so he can’t update its website) and that the group blocked him on Twitter. He adds that he believes the group needs to be more responsive to riders, especially after Metro incidents and agency developments like the hiring of Wiedefeld as general manager (the group did issue a press release on Wiedefeld’s potential appointment earlier this month). The union “needs to respond to things, they need to do more on Twitter and keep the website stable,” Barnes says. “That’ll be a good start.”
“It’s not what I intended for the group to be and they’re not doing right by riders,” he adds.
Jenkins admits the group needs to share its specific expenses more in the future and that it could react more quickly to Metro news with statements and on social media. The union has a second public meeting scheduled for Dec. 9, again at the MLK Memorial Library, and is starting to organize issue-based committees in order to eventually publish “position papers” as a “helpful guide for the new GM,” he says. While it waits to become a non-profit, it will focus on safety, reliability, and ensuring that Metro bolsters communications to riders.
“I would hope that we get good reception on our more-specific proposals,” he adds. “And that we develop more of a working relationship with [Metro] itself, which isn’t a cozy one. We want to stay adversarial to a degree to keep them on their toes and relay riders’ concerns.”
Photo by Darrow Montgomery